It was 8 p.m. on a Friday in 1988, and newly licensed lawyer Chris Tritico was still at work at Haynes and Fullenweider in Houston when he took a call from a potential client.
Tritico met with the caller, a Houston Independent School District teacher who thought there might be a warrant out for his arrest, and gave the teacher some advice. That next Monday morning, Tritico says, he got a call from Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who asked him to represent the teacher.
“We were looking for new counsel at the time,” Fallon says.
“I didn’t tell her, but I had only been a lawyer for less than a month,” Tritico, now a partner in Tritico Rainey, says.
That chance call from the teacher led to a 25-year lawyer/client relationship between Tritico and the teachers’ union. Tritico is now the union’s general counsel and Tritico Rainey is one of the union’s go-to firms. Fallon says the work largely consists of representing union members in termination hearings, defending teachers from job-related criminal charges, and representing the union in various matters.
Tritico has kept the HFT as a client for so many years because of his professional relationship with Fallon, the longtime president of the union, and because he gets results.
Tritico says he and Fallon have become friends over the 25 years. They don’t always agree, but they do respect each other’s opinion. He says they talk at least once a week, sometimes during working hours, but often at 5 or 6 a.m. or late at night.
“We get to help a lot of people over here. Gayle and I have become really good friends,” he says.
The bulk of the work is teacher termination hearings. Tritico says he’s probably tried more teacher terminations than any other lawyer in Texas. He says his firm handles 40 to 50 a year on average.
A teacher termination hearing is an administrative hearing, somewhat like a binding arbitration, Fallon says. Years ago, termination hearings at HISD went before the HISD Board of Trustees, but since 1996, they have been held before an administrative hearing officer.
Tritico represented Beverly Goodie, a HISD teacher who was terminated by the HISD board in one of the first cases under the new procedure. Goodie was terminated after the board rejected the hearing officer’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Texas Commissioner of Education reversed the board decision and ordered the board to reinstate Goodie. A district court reversed the Commissioner’s decision and in October 2001, a panel of the 14th Court of Appeals reversed and rendered judgment that the Commissioner’s decision be affirmed.
The 14th court found that the HISD board’s decision to terminate Goodie was “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful” because the board failed to meet a necessary condition to change or reject the hearing examiner’s conclusions of law and recommendation of relief. “Because we find the Commissioner’s conclusion is not erroneous, there is no basis for reversing the Commissioner’s decision,” the court held.
In 2002, the Texas Supreme Court denied HISD’s request for review.
As a result of Goodie, Tritico says, “The board just couldn’t throw it out because they didn’t like it.”
It’s had an impact on termination hearings. Since Goodie, Tritico says, “I can’t think of one time that the Houston school board has tried to reverse a win I had. If the teacher wins, they put them back to work. If the teacher loses, I go before the board and argue to try to save their job.”
Tritico says he and the lawyers are wrapping up the busy teacher termination hearing season, since state law requires school districts to notify teachers of their termination at least 10 days before the end of instruction, which was last spring.
“I just dole them out among my four lawyers and hit the ground running,” he says.
Fallon says the HFT sent about half of 65 teacher termination cases this year to Tritico’s firm. Tritico says the volume is down from two years ago when the firm handled more than 100 termination cases after the Texas Legislature cut funding to school districts.
Tritico, who notes that many termination cases settle before an administrative hearing, says his firm bills an average of $400,000 a year to the union. He says he charges the HFT $250 an hour, which is more than the $125 an hour he charged 25 years ago, but well below his $600 an hour rate for criminal defense work. He says he charges the HFT a reduced rate because of the volume of business.
“The board hates to see him,” Fallon says.
His firm does some criminal work for union members, but the criminal charges have to be related to the teacher’s job. Those charges would include assault, sexual assault and theft on the job, Tritico says.
“I have never had a client from this union criminally convicted by a jury,” he says.
Clay Grover, a partner in Rogers, Morris & Grover of Houston, who represents HISD in some teacher termination cases, says he likes seeing Tritico on the other side.
“He’s professional,” Grover says. “He’s good at his job of representing teachers, but he’s not unreasonable to work with. I always find him to be prepared and knowledgeable about the issues, so it actually goes a lot smoother.”