NEW ORLEANS — Thousands of New Orleans school employees were wrongfully fired after Hurricane Katrina scattered the populations and shut down the city and its schools, a Louisiana judge ruled Wednesday.

Judge Ethel Simms Julien awarded more than $1 million to seven people who filed the class-action suit against the New Orleans school board and the state. Her decision cleared the way for more damages to be awarded to an estimated 7,000 others in future proceedings.

It was not immediately clear whether the defendants — including the Orleans Parish School Board, the state Department of Education and the state itself — would appeal. An attorney for the school board said he would discuss the matter with his client. The state Attorney General's Office said it would consult with lawyers the state hired for the case.

The ruling comes almost seven years after levee breaches during the storm caused 80 percent of the city to flood.

With schools in no shape to open, the Orleans Parish School Board dismissed more than 7,000 employees, while the state seized the opportunity to take over most schools in the long-troubled system.

1 comment on this story

In 45 pages of reasons that accompanied the ruling, Julien said the fired teachers and others were deprived of "the vested property interest held in their tenured or permanent employment positions." She also said the employees were denied due process that school boards by state law must go through if finances require a reduction in force.

Teacher Gwendolyn Ridgely, now retired and living in New Roads, La., said she feels vindicated by the ruling.

"The community can see now. They know what actually happened to us," said the teacher of 32 years who was trapped in her attic for two days after Katrina.

Julien awarded more than $480,000 to Ridgely, although she said she knows that appeals are likely.

The lawsuit began in late 2005 as an effort to prevent dismissals and evolved into a wrongful termination action.