Decision in Yanez teacher licensure case could have far reaching consequences

Judges rule against overly broad “morals” clauses

January 23, 2023 6:00 am

Pallbearers lead a march down Selby Avenue after the funeral of Philando Castile at the Cathedral of St. Paul on July 14, 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile was shot and killed on July 6, 2016 by police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals late last year re-opened the denial of a teaching license for a former metro police officer who shot and killed a Black man in a notorious 2016 traffic stop.

The case could have much broader implications beyond the classroom, affecting employment relationships and other business arrangements in this state and perhaps elsewhere, as well.

The plaintiff is Jeronimo Yanez, a St. Anthony police officer who killed Philando Castile during a botched traffic stop in the neighboring community of Falcon Heights. After he was fired from the force following his acquittal by a Ramsey County District Court jury, he faded into obscurity, serving as a part-time teacher at a Twin Cities parochial school. But Yanez re-surfaced right after Thanksgiving when the state appellate court decision reversed the denial of his application for a license to teach in the public schools.

The opinion, authored by Chief Judge Susan Segal and joined by judges Diane Bratvold and Sarah Wheelock, could form a precedent for challenges to other licensing practices, procedures, statutes and contractual provisions — in both the public and private spheres — relating to what is generally known as “morals” matters. 

Castile killing

The facts of the traffic stop and mistaken shooting are well-known: Yanez stopped the vehicle driven by Castile, who had his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter in the car, due to a minor traffic infraction. Castile told the officer approaching the vehicle that he had a pistol in the car and had a permit for it. While ostensibly reaching into his pocket for the license, he was shot seven times and killed.

Yanez was charged with multiple felonies, but was acquitted after lengthy deliberations by a jury. The city, through its insurance carrier, settled civil claims by Castile’s family and his passenger for $3.8 million.

After teaching Spanish part time at a Twin Cities parochial school, which doesn’t require a teaching license, Yanez sought a substitute position with a three-year licensure. His application was denied by the Minnesota Professional Educational Licensing and Standards Board. The agency based its denial on a statutory provision prohibiting licensure for individuals who have displayed “immoral character or conduct.” 

The denial of his application was upheld by an administrative law judge with the Office of Administrative Hearings. There was a lengthy hearing that included a number of witnesses, including pedagogical and law enforcement experts proffered by both the board and Yanez. The administrative law judge determined Yanez* engaged in a “pretextual” stop of Castile, which was “indicative of racial bias” and that his conduct was “morally wrong.” That led to the administrative law judge’s conclusion that having Yanez* in the classroom would be detrimental to students, especially those of color.

The board adopted the recommendation, determining that Yanez* was barred from licensure because of his “immoral conduct” under the statute.

Yanez appealed the determination to the Court of Appeals, which overturned the ruling four days after Thanksgiving and sent it back to the board for further consideration.

Yanez succeeded on the most compelling issue: Whether the statute was impermissible under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment because it is excessively vague.  

Pointing to case law in other jurisdictions as well as parallel licensure cases in Minnesota, the court felt that the statutory language failed to give “fair warning” to an applicant, and that its nebulous terminology lends itself to “caprice [and] arbitrary decision making,” along with potentially “biased enforcement.”

These vices, the appellate court concluded, made this statute unenforceable by its terms.

That determination, however, did not end the matter. The constitutional infirmity could be cured by construing it “narrowly,” which the court proceeded to do, by defining the vital “immoral” term to require that the offensive behavior occurred in a “professional context.” This required determining whether the incident relates to his “fitness to teach in a public school,” which should be the “exclusive focus.” In other words, what matters is how he’s behaved in the classroom, not as a St. Anthony police officer. 

In reversing the denial, the court did not mandate that the license be issued. Rather, it remanded the matter to the board for further deliberation, which should be undertaken with “great circumspection,” identifying whether and how his conduct relates to his fitness for teaching. That may be determined by the board, or be re-opened for further evidentiary proceedings before an administrative law judge.

The Yanez case is not unique. A number of other jurisdictions have addressed similarly broad language in teacher licensure and termination cases and reached similar conclusions. But this was the first issue like this adjudicated here in Minnesota. 

And the Minnesota appellate court ruling may have much broader impact.

Other public sector licensure provisions — including for lawyers — have “morals” clauses, taking ethical behavior into account, in granting or denying licensure. Those are likely to be affected by this decision and may have to incorporate the tribunal’s ruling that the morals clause must be related to the particular job duties.

But the private sector may be affected, too, particularly those companies with high-level personnel, who often have “morals” clauses, allowing management to terminate the arrangement for improper or “immoral” behavior, even if unrelated to the particular job.  

In fact, there have been a number of occasions in which high-level workers have been discharged — often with handsome severance packages — on “morality” grounds. 

They also arise in connection with terminations of contractual relationships with athletes and celebrities under the “morals” clauses in endorsement, licensing and royalties deals, like the recent termination of Adidas’ arrangement with the rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West) due to his antisemitic remarks. 

On some occasions, the disciplinary actions have taken place under contractual clauses, while in others the sanctions have fallen under more general company policies or handbook provisions. They include former Timberwolves executive Gersson Rosas, fired in 2021 after the discovery of a relationship with a female subordinate. And Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson, barred in his prime for most of the 2014 season for child abuse.

All of the major professional sports organizations have similar “morals” clauses that allow disciplinary actions for conduct detrimental to the leagues or their member teams. The NFL, for example, proscribes behavior that is considered to “adversely affect or reflect” on the NFL or any of its clubs. The other leagues have taken up comparable language. 

The Yanez ruling may augment the ability of displaced employees to contest disciplinary actions from morals clauses, even though not governed by constitutional due process considerations like public school teaching licensure in the Yanez case. Still, private sector entities may face challenges on grounds that “morals” terminology is impermissible, and, under conventional legal tenets must be construed “narrowly” as in Yanez, and against the drafters and in favor of the employees subject to them.

That outlook may bolster the opportunities of employees for litigation, as well as to achieve better out-of-court settlements.

Whether that occurs remains to be seen. But employees disciplined under “morals” clauses in contracts or company policies, as well as those denied licensure applications on those grounds may, like Yanez, want to take a shot at it.

*Correction: A previous version of this commentary transposed the names of Yanez and Castile in three instances.

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Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities employment law attorney with the law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.