State’s top court to review case of DOT worker fired over bus driver recertification

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  • The North Carolina Supreme Court will take up the case of a worker fired from the state Department of Transportation over concerns involving bus driver recertification.
  • The high court had issued an order in September blocking a state Appeals Court ruling against fired worker Thurman Crofton Savage.
  • Savage argues against DOT's "first-time interpretation" of a state law used in his dismissal.

The North Carolina Supreme Court will take up the case of a state Department of Transportation worker fired over his handling of bus driver recertification. The court announced the decision Friday without comment.

The high court had issued an order in September blocking a state Court of Appeals ruling against the DOT worker, Thurman Crofton Savage.

DOT had cited Savage’s violations of bus driver recertification rules when firing him.

A state Supreme Court order signed by new Justice Allison Riggs on Sept. 21 offered no reason for blocking the unanimous Appeals Court ruling. Appellate judges ruled that DOT could fire Savage as a driver’s education program specialist.

“The Court noted that Mr. Savage had recertified five school bus drivers without requiring them to conduct a pre-trip inspection and without their demonstrations of proper school bus operations,” wrote Ben Irons, Savage’s lawyer. “The Court held that the dismissal of Mr. Savage was mandated by N.C. Gen. Stat. 520-34.1 (c). Because it found its decision on that issue to be dispositive, it did not consider Mr. Savage’s arguments that he was dismissed without just cause.”

Savage argued that because his recertifications “did not result in the issuance of a license or an endorsement of the license but instead only rechecks the skills of an experienced bus driver, it did not ‘concern a driver’s license,’” Irons wrote. “The NC DOT contended for the first time in its history that the statute mandated dismissal for these rechecks.”

An administrative law judge “specifically found that this was the first time that any DEPS had been dismissed for improper recertifications. All others charged for this offense were allowed to continue their employment,” Irons wrote.

In addition to the stay and “writ of supersedeas” blocking the Appeals Court order, Savage asked the state’s highest court to take his case. “[H]e contends that the Court of Appeals improperly deferred to the NC DOT’s first-time interpretation of this statute when it should have been skeptical in accordance with prior decisions of this Court and the Court of Appeals,” Irons wrote. “As a result, he will argue that he was singled out for dismissal while all other DEPS accused of this offense were allowed to continue as employees.”

Savage appealed to the high court after the full 15-member Appeals Court refused to hold a rare “en banc” hearing reconsidering the unanimous Aug. 15 ruling from a three-judge panel.

Appellate judges reversed an earlier decision from the state Office of Administrative Hearings. An OAH administrative law judge had determined that DOT lacked “just cause” to fire Savage.

He started working with DOT’s School Bus and Traffic Safety Unit in April 2018. His job involved teaching and testing school bus drivers for their certification and recertification. Savage also entered information about completed certification into the State Automated Driver’s License System.

“Between August and October 2019, Mr. Savage recertified at least five school bus drivers without completing all the procedures required in the School Bus & Traffic Safety Procedures Manual for DEPS, including the requirement that he observe the driver conduct a pre-trip inspection and demonstrate proper school bus operations,” Judge Chris Dillon wrote for the Appeals Court panel.

After an investigation, DOT notified Savage in November 2019 that it planned to fire him for “unacceptable personal conduct, grossly inefficient job performance, and violations of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-34.1.”

That statute addresses “violations for wrongful issuance of a driver’s license or a special identification card.”

The administrative law judge ruled against DOT in April 2022. The judge determined that the department had just cause to suspend Savage without pay, but not to dismiss him.

“Mr. Savage argues the statute is inapplicable because improper recertifications of school bus drivers do not involve the issuance of a license, but rather, merely allow the possessor of a driver’s license to have an endorsement on his license allowing him to operate a school bus,” Dillon wrote. “Thus, Mr. Savage contends, as the ALJ determined, recertification ‘has no impact on a driver’s license.’

“However, Section 20-34.1(a)(3) does not merely cover information regarding the issuance of a driver’s license to someone not entitled to drive, but also to knowingly ‘enter[ing] false information concerning [an otherwise valid] driver’s license … in the records of the Division,’” Dillon added. “As conceded by the parties, to operate a school bus in North Carolina, a driver must possess a commercial driver’s license and be certified/recertified as a school bus driver by meeting other criteria, including certain matters Mr. Savage was required to confirm.”

“Here, though, Mr. Savage entered information into SADLS that certain drivers had been properly certified/recertified to operate a school bus when they had not yet met all the criteria due to Mr. Savage’s misconduct,” Dillon wrote. “And the SADLS is part of the ‘records of the Division [of Motor Vehicles].’ We, therefore, conclude Mr. Savage violated Section 20-34.1 by entering the false information ‘concerning’ at least five driver’s licenses. Accordingly, the DOT was required to terminate him.”

Savage and DOT will file additional briefs in the case before the state Supreme Court schedules the case for oral arguments.