In a unanimous decision, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that substitute and part-time teachers who worked in Hawaii between 2000 and 2012 were not entitled to the $56 million in back pay and interest that they were seeking.

The ruling likely brings an end to a long-running legal fight on behalf of the 28,000 subs and part-timers who taught during that period. In two class-action lawsuits, the teachers had claimed the state Department of Education violated a 1996 equal pay law by paying them less than certain teachers.

“While this court does not condone underpaying DOE teachers in violation of DOE policy, here, the applicable law does not provide a basis for the teachers’ entitlement to hourly back wages,” wrote Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.

In its ruling, the Hawaii Supreme Court reversed a pair of May 2015 First Circuit Court decisions in favor of the teachers.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the rulings were upheld by the state Intermediate Court of Appeals. The cases were heard directly by the state Supreme Court.

Supreme Court of Hawaii Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald gestures during attorneys oral arguments. mauna kea tmt. 27 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald found there was no basis in the law entitling the teachers to receive back pay. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The lower court had said that 8,000 substitute teachers who worked in the state from November 2000 to June 2012 were entitled to $6.8 million in hourly back wages, plus $13.5 million in interest. It also had said roughly 20,000 part-time teachers who worked in the state from February 2004 through June 2012 were entitled to hourly back pay of $24 million, but denied them interest of $9.45 million.

The state Attorney General’s Office appealed the rulings, arguing that the subs and part-time teachers were paid the amount they contracted for and that they didn’t have a valid contract claim for the additional wages.

Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin in a statement Wednesday praised the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The State and DOE appreciate the part-time teachers’ important contribution to the education of our youth,” he said. “They can and should be paid for that contribution. But the state also has a duty to all citizens to ensure that part-time teachers are not paid more than they are owed.”

Substitute and part-time teachers are not part of the teachers’ union in Hawaii. Subs are currently paid a daily rate ranging from from $143.99 to $169.34 depending on various factors.

One of the cases was brought by lead plaintiff David Garner, a former substitute teacher in Maui. The other case was brought by former part-time teacher Diana Kawashima. Litigation in the Garner case led to a partial settlement in 2014.

The state agreed to pay $14 million to settle daily wage claims for substitutes from November 2000 to June 2005. The state, meantime, continued to dispute the claims for hourly back wages and interest.

“We believed that we paid them every penny we thought we owed them and when we found out from the court we were wrong, we paid it,” said William Wynhoff, a deputy attorney general.

In its Wednesday ruling, the Hawaii Supreme Court concluded that a change to the way the Department of Education determined part-time teacher pay was sound.

Department of Education communications director Donalyn Dela Cruz said the agency “echoes the Attorney General’s statement in regards to appreciation for the significant contributions made by part-time and substitute teachers and that they should be compensated accordingly.”

She provided no specific comments about the Supreme Court ruling.

The teachers were represented by the law firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, whose attorneys did not return requests for comments.

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