Fired DOT worker seeks rare hearing from full NC Appeals Court
An employee fired from the North Carolina Department of Transportation for improperly recertifying school bus drivers urges the full 15-member state Appeals Court to hear his lawsuit challenging the dismissal.
Thurman Crofton Savage filed a motion Wednesday for a rare “en banc” hearing of the full Appeals Court. The state’s second-highest court usually decides cases in three-judge panels.
A unanimous three-judge panel ruled against Savage on Aug. 15. 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 from his job as a driver’s education program specialist.
Savage 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 unanimous three-judge 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 urges the full Appeals Court to reconsider that decision. “This Court should grant this Motion because it is necessary to maintain the uniformity of its decisions,” wrote lawyer Ben Irons.
This case marked the first time DOT invoked § 20-34.1 to fire a driver’s education program specialist. “[I]t is appropriate for the Court to view the agency’s interpretation skeptically,” Irons argued.
“In addition, this is a case of exceptional importance because the interpretation will set a precedent that singles out one person for dismissal for improper recertifications when evidence established that all others who had committed the same offenses continued as employees of the NC DOT,” Savage’s lawyer added.
The request for a full 15-judge hearing emphasized the DOT’s interpretation of state law. “This Court’s decisions have not deferred to State agency interpretations of statutes and policies which are different from all previous interpretations,” Irons wrote.