Can a teacher, covered by a collective bargaining agreement maintain an action pursuant to Civil Service law 75-b, the Whistleblower’s Law?

No. Michele Ehrlich, an ESL teacher at PS 79 in Whitestone until her probationary termination in July 2011, complained to several DOE departments and some private advocacy groups about a violation of an IEP of one of her students. After her termination she claimed she was covered by the Whistleblower’s Law Section 75-b. (A federal claim concerning her free speech rights was dismissed in a federal action that had been removed to that court by the DOE).

Acting Justice Ellen M. Coin ruled that Ehrlich could not maintain her action under the Whistleblower’s law since she was covered by the UFT contract and was required to exhaust her remedies available under the grievance procedure before she could commence an action.

Ehrlich v. DOE (November 7, 2013, Decided)

Can a paraprofessional accused and terminated for an alleged inappropriate involvement with a twenty year old special education student seek reinstatement when he appealed to court almost two years after his last day of work despite the UFT refusal to take his case to arbitration?

No. James Barnes, Jr., a paraprofessional at P 754X was accused of an inappropriate relationship with a 20-year-old female special education student on February 24, 2010. He was reassigned pending an SCI investigation. On October 7, 2010, a due consideration conference was held to give petitioner a chance to respond to the SCI report with his UFT representative present. Petitioner was formally terminated and placed on the “Ineligible Inquiry List” in a letter dated October 19, 2010. On October 21, 2010, petitioner filed his initial grievance appeal and a Step 2 grievance appeal conference was held on January 7, 2011. On January 21, 2011, the Chancellor’s Representative issued a grievance decision denying petitioner’s grievance, finding that “the grievant received due process and was properly terminated without contractual violations.” Petitioner appealed to the UFT union’s Ad Com Grievance Committee to take further action. In a letter dated June 8, 2010, the Committee denied the appeal and declined  to take any further action on petitioner’s behalf, stating “that the Union cannot overcome the Department of Education’s argument that you were terminated for good and sufficient reason and received due consideration.”

Barnes started his Article 78 petition on August 31, 2012.

The statute of limitations for Article 78 proceedings is 4 months and in termination cases the time starts to run from the petitioner’s “last day of work.” Barnes argued that the Union’s delay in deciding to take the matter to arbitration tolled or extended this limitations period.

Justice Alexander W. Hunter, Jr. disagreed and ruled that Barnes’ petition was untimely and dismissed his petition.

Barnes had also argued that the SCI investigator admitted he falsified telephone records which were used to establish Barnes’ alleged inappropriate relationship. Justice Hunter ruled that under Labor Law Sections 537 and 623 evidence from unemployment hearings is inadmissible in subsequent court proceedings.

In the Matter of the Application of James Barnes, Jr., Petitioner, For a Judgment Pursuant to Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules, -against- The Department of Education of the City of New York, Respondent, Index No.: 401944/12, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2013 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 268; 2013 NY Slip Op 30091U, January 16, 2013.

Will the Court uphold an arbitrator’s imposed fine for engaging in protected 1st Amendment free speech activity?

No. Richard Santer, a teacher employed by the East Meadow Union Free School District engaged, with other teachers, in a peaceful protest while negotiations for a new contract were underway. The protest involved picketing in front of a middle school which included parking their cars in front of the school and display their picket signs in their cars. This area was also used by the middle school’s students’ parents to drop off their children for school.

None of the teachers blocked either of two curb cuts in front of the school but according to the principal the protesting teachers’ parking caused traffic to become congested creating a safety concern for students being dropped off in the middle of the street.

No school official asked the teachers to move their cars during the protest, and no child was injured.

The school district brought disciplinary charges against several teachers under 3020-a and after an arbitration Santer was fined $500. His appeal was denied in Supreme Court.

On appeal to the Appellate Division Santer prevailed. The Appellate Division found that Santer’s free speech rights were violated and by bringing him up on disciplinary charges the school district, in effect, chilled free speech rights of all teachers concerning a matter of public concern.

N.B. In a case brought to the same Appellate Division, but a different panel, concerning the same incident but with a different teacher the Court held that the arbitrator was reasonable in upholding the discipline. In that case, Matter of Trupiano v Board of Educ. of E. Meadow Union Free School Dist., 89 AD3d 1030, 933 N.Y.S.2d 106) the teacher received a counseling memo. The Santer Court reasoned that Trupiano was not controlling since Trupiano did not raise a First Amendment claim in her petition.

Another teacher who was fined $1000 for the same incident was denied her appeal at the Supreme Court level. The Court there found that she engaged in an activity that endangered student safety. She did not appeal further. Barbara Lucia, Petitioner, against Board of Education of the East Meadow Union Free School District, Respondent. 32 Misc. 3d 1208A; 932 N.Y.S.2d 761; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3178; 2011 NY Slip Op 51210U (Nassau Sup.Ct., 2011)

In the Matter of Richard Santer, appellant, v Board of Education of East Meadow Union Free School District, respondent. (Index No. 1997/10), 2010-11006, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT, 2012 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8698; 2012 NY Slip Op 8750, December 19, 2012, Decided.

Is a probationary teacher who received a U-rating required to exhaust all administrative remedies before appealing to Court?

Yes. Leonette Belfield worked for over 10 years as a paraprofessional when she entered the DOE’s program, “Pathways to Teaching,” to become a teacher in 2006. She received 3 consecutive S-ratings and was given a U-rating for the 2009 to 2010 school year and terminated. (It is not clear why Belfield was still on probation during her fourth year teaching).

Deciding not to wait until her U-rating appeal was decided by the Chancellor, Belfield commenced a proceeding seeking reversal of her U-rating and reinstatement. It was undisputed that Belfield did not exhaust her administrative remedies.

Without deciding on the merits Justice Barbara Jaffee dismissed her application relying on Belfield’s failure to wait for the Chancellor’s decision in her U-rating appeal.

In the Matter of the Application of: LEONETTE BELFIELD, Petitioner, -against- JOEL KLEIN, as the Chancellor of the Department of Education of the City of New York, CITY OF NEW YORK, and NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Respondents. For a Judgment pursuant to Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Index No. 114094/10, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 31862U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3389, July 1, 2011, Decided

Observation: The decision and supporting documents do not reveal answers to some important questions about the case. Although the Court wrote, in its decision, that Belfield had requested reinstatement, this was not requested in her petition. It is not clear when Belfield was terminated but generally a proceeding to challenge a probationary termination has a four month statute of limitations measured from the effective date of termination. To challenge the U-rating and the subsequent placement on the DOE’s ineligible list requires filing the proceeding in Court within four months of the Chancellor’s decision in the U-rating appeal which did not occur at the time of the filing of Belfield’s petition.


Can a written communication from a school administrator to a tenured teacher which criticizes the teacher be made a part of the teacher’s personnel file without affording the teacher an opportunity for a due process hearing?

Yes, according to a June 2, 2011 decision of the Court of Appeals, our state’s highest court. And you can thank our crack negotiating team for supplying the legal justification.

Back in June 2005 a fact-finding panel concluded that a teacher’s right to grieve letters in the file should be given up in exchange for the right of the teacher to append a response to the letter and have the letter removed from their file if no disciplinary charges were preferred after 3 years.

The UFT contract negotiators extolled the value of giving up this important right and it was incorporated into the contract for 2003 to 2007. There was (and still is) no right to deal with inaccurate letters, including those concluding teacher misconduct, unless and until there was a disciplinary hearing.

A small crack seemed to open in several cases brought about in response to letters that concluded there was teacher misconduct and the teacher given no ability to confront the allegations except with a written, attached response. On its face this seemed to fly in the face of the due process requirements of 3020-a and several lower court judges agreed.

The case of Rachel Cohn is illustrative. Cohn, a tenured Kindergarten teacher at P.S. 7Q, got into a discussion about paraprofessionals with her principal, Sara Tucci. During the discussion Cohn allegedly said that Tucci should watch “her Latin temper.”

Tucci took offense at the remark and commenced an OEO investigation. At the conclusion of the OEO investigation, the OEO found a probable violation of Chancellor’s Regulation A-830 and referred the matter back to Tucci for possible corrective action. Tucci placed a letter in Cohn’s file substantiating her own complaint and warning that the matter could lead to charges and ultimate termination.

Helen Hickey is a tenured physical education teacher at P.S. 41R with almost 30 years’ experience. When a field day was scheduled for the end of the school year the principal gave her certain instructions. When the day arrived there was inclement weather and a change in plans was required to move the field day indoors. The field day started 20 minutes late and the principal took no time to place a letter in Hickey’s file. The letter stated that Hickey was incompetent and may be subject to disciplinary charges.

Both Hickey and Cohn brought proceedings in Supreme Court and following other lower court precedent the Court’s ordered both letters expunged from their files. The lower court found that characterizing the alleged improper action made the letter subject to the due process requirements of 3020-a and were no longer instructive or cautionary in nature but rather disciplinary to which each teacher had a right to a hearing to contest.

The DOE appealed and the Appellate Division, First Department found that when the contract was changed to prevent letters in file grievances the parties waived any right to expunge the letters whether they were characterized as disciplinary or not.

Hickey and Cohn appealed to the Court of Appeals which decided, unanimously, that the UFT had bargained away their right to a hearing.

The Court of Appeals wrote:

“Article 21A is a broad provision that clearly encompasses written reprimands and the disciplinary letters at issue here fell within the purview of Article 21A. Comparison of the statute and the CBA provision reveals that the procedure in Article 21A is significantly different than, and incompatible with, the procedure in Education Law § 3020-a, meaning that the parties to the contract could not have intended both procedures to simultaneously apply. Their history of collective bargaining indicates, with respect to the placement of written materials in tenured teacher’s files, petitioners’ union was well aware that, by adopting Article 21A, it was agreeing to substitute that procedure for other due process procedures that had previously been in place. Therefore, there is ample basis to conclude that the union knowingly waived the procedural rights granted in Education Law § 3020-a in this limited arena. Because the letters at issue are not subject to 3020-a procedures, petitioners are not entitled to have them expunged.”

In the Matter of Helen Hickey, Appellant, v. New York City Department of Education, Respondent. In the Matter of Rachel Cohn, Appellant, v. Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York, et al., Respondents., No. 101, No.102, COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK, 2011 NY Slip Op 4541; 2011 N.Y. LEXIS 1339, June 2, 2011

Is a request for medical arbitration necessary before going to Court to challenge a Line of Duty Injury request?

Anna Carter, a teacher assigned to the Reassignment Center, claimed a line of duty injury. She claimed that the injury occurred when “My knees were giving me pain I stood to go to the bathroom, and I tripped over two chair legs that were  straddling one another. ”

She completed the necessary paperwork and took an extended time before she was able to return to work.

Her OP-198 was not properly signed by the Superintendent and she was unable to produce a proper approval. Nevertheless the matter was heard by the Medical Board where Line of Duty status was denied. Carter then received a bill for a payroll overpayment of almost $34,000. No demand for medical arbitration was ever made by Carter or by the Union on her behalf.

Carter brought a petition in Supreme Court seeking the Line of Duty Injury status and the cancellation of the DOE recoupment of the alleged overpayment.

Justice Stallman found that the Court was powerless to review Carter claim because the Union contract permitted only medical arbitration as the exclusive remedy to challenge the Medical Board’s denial of LODI status.
In the Matter of the Application of ANNA CARTER, Petitioner, – against – Board of Education/Leaves Admin./HR Connect, Respondents. Index No. 401498/10, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 31061U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1941, April 22, 2011