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Matt Onnen v. Sioux Falls Independent School District #49-5

August 3, 2011



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gilbertson, Chief Justice.


[¶1.] Matt Onnen was terminated from an administrative position at Southeast Technical Institute (STI), an entity of the Sioux Falls School District. He appealed the decision, arguing that it was arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion. The trial court, Judge William J. Srstka, Jr., affirmed the decision to terminate. Onnen appeals Judge Srstka's determination. Onnen also alleges that Judge Srstka was biased in the proceedings and should have granted his motion for a new trial. We affirm.


[¶2.] Onnen began working for STI in 2003. In August 2005, he was hired as STI's registrar under a written contract. He continued his employment under annual written contracts. As registrar, Onnen was responsible for ensuring students met all the graduation requirements before receiving a degree.

[¶3.] Onnen's supervisor, Jim Rokusek, was informed in August 2007 that a student had received a degree despite failing to meet all of the graduation requirements. After investigation, Rokusek discovered that 12 additional students had improperly received degrees and STI's records incorrectly reflected that the students were graduates. Thereafter, Rokusek met with Onnen and others to discuss the degree errors. Onnen admitted he knew as early as June 2007 that six or seven degrees had been sent out incorrectly and that he had personally issued three of them. A work-study student sent out the other degrees while Onnen was on annual leave. Onnen denied knowing of any other improperly conferred degrees. Onnen said that he had called some of the students who received an improperly conferred degree to inform them they had not graduated, but he did not keep a list of who he reached. Onnen admitted that he had not informed his superiors of the errors. As a result, STI suspended Onnen for three days with pay so that STI could conduct a more thorough investigation. Onnen was given a memorandum stating that he had a right to prepare a written response to the suspension, which he did not do.

[¶4.] During Onnen's suspension period, STI commenced an investigation to determine the scope of degree errors and how to address the problem. STI officials found that 15 more improperly conferred degrees or diplomas were approved and awarded by Onnen the previous year, bringing the total to 28. They also discovered 40-50 students were entitled to a degree or diploma, but had not received one. Finally, they found out that over 250 students had not been verified for graduation at all, though the task should have been done months earlier.

[¶5.] Personnel from STI met to discuss the investigation results. Due to the magnitude of Onnen's errors, his refusal to take responsibility for the errors, and lack of effort to rectify the situation, they agreed Onnen should be terminated. On August 30, 2007, Onnen was given a Notice of Termination of Employment, effective immediately. The Notice outlined the investigation results and explained the severity of the errors and negative effect they could have on STI and its students. The Sioux Falls School Board (Board) affirmed the decision on September 10, 2007. On September 17, 2007, Onnen submitted a complaint to Sioux Falls School District #49-5 (District) Superintendent Dr. Pamela Homan, alleging that he had been wrongfully terminated. Onnen appealed the District's and Board's decision of termination to circuit court. He argued that the decision to terminate him was arbitrary and capricious and in violation of public policy. He also argued that the procedure utilized by the District in terminating him was illegal. After a three-day trial, Judge Srstka affirmed the District.

[¶6.] After trial, Onnen moved for a new trial and for Judge Srstka's recusal from hearing the motion for a new trial. Presiding Judge Kathleen Caldwell denied Onnen's motion for Judge Srstka's recusal from hearing the new trial motion. Ultimately, Judge Srstka denied Onnen's motion for a new trial.

[¶7.] On appeal, the issues presented are:

1. Whether Judge Srstka erred in concluding that the District's decision was not arbitrary and capricious, or an abuse of discretion.

2. Whether Judge Srstka abused his discretion in denying Onnen's motion for a new trial because of his alleged bias.


[¶8.] SDCL 13-46-6 allows a party to appeal a school board decision:

The trial in the circuit court shall be de novo according to the rules relating to special proceedings of a civil nature so far as such rules are applicable and not in conflict with the provisions of this chapter and the court shall enter such final judgment or order as the circumstances and every right of the case may require and such judgment or order may ...

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