Jim Busey's wrongful termination lawsuit against the Richland School District is one step closer to trial.
Federal Judge Edward Shea ruled Friday against the district's request to push Busey's claims to arbitration during a hearing in Richland.
Busey, who was fired as the district's superintendent in mid-January, is seeking at least $1 million in damages.
Shea said both sides could make compelling arguments, but he sided with Busey and his attorney, Brian Iller, that the arbitration clause in Busey's contract is narrowly defined and his claims can be made independent of it.
Busey was fired after the district discovered his relationship with a district employee and his attempt to pursue a relationship with a district consultant. The board said Busey used district-provided equipment to conduct the affair and disrupted the school where the employee worked, among other allegations.
Busey, through his attorney, has said he was discriminated against, as the woman he was involved with was not fired. He claims the district denied him due process and conducted a sham investigation to find a pretense to get rid of him.
Mick McFarland, a Spokane attorney brought in by the district's insurance agency, told Shea it was clear the case should go to arbitration before it went to trial because there is an arbitration clause in Busey's contract.
State law rigorously supports arbitration and has a low standard to require it, McFarland said. Busey's allegation that he was wrongly terminated depends on clauses in his contract, which requires any dispute between him and the district go to arbitration, he added.
"None of his claims can be made without explanation of the terms of his employment contract," McFarland said.
Iller said Busey's claims do depend upon the terms of his contract, but the language the district used in crafting the arbitration clause isn't broad enough to cover the claims.
Iller pointed out the district did not use language recommended by professional associations representing arbitrators, and that the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals twice has rejected the argument McFarland made.
"Really, the school district has the law wrong," Iller said.
Shea said that while he ruled in Busey's favor, both sides have plenty of evidence they could use to make a strong case.
"There's just that kind of loose language everywhere," he said.
Shea also raised a concern about the board's use of the word "extramarital" in describing Busey's affair in his termination letter.
McFarland said the term "extramarital" is sometimes extra language included in describing an affair, but was not the basis for Busey's firing.
Iller said he was pleased with the judge's decision and looks forward to a jury trial.