Are teachers who park their cars in legal spots near their school as part of informational picketing and thereby cause students to be dropped off in the street engaged in protected 1st Amendment activity?

No. We have visited this case last year when the Appellate Division reversed the ruling of the Supreme Court in a case coming from the East Meadow school district. As you may recall members of the East Meadow Teachers Association decided to form an informational picket line by parking their cars in legal spots near Woodland Middle School in such a way that pedestrians could only pass to the school’s sidewalk through curb cuts. The parking area was not restricted but had been customarily used as a drop-off area for parents bringing their children to school. The protest caused traffic congestion and students were dropped off by their parents in the middle of the street.

Writing for the majority of the Court of Appeals Judge Abdus-Salaam found that while the teachers’ First Amendment rights were implicated, safety concerns for the students outweighed these rights and permitted the arbitrators to discipline the teachers pursuant to 3020-a.

A strong dissent, written by Judge Rivera, argued that the majority engaged in improper fact finding an improperly weighed the alleged disruption and safety concerns.

In the Matter of Richard Santer, Respondent, v Board of Education of East Meadow Union Free School District, Appellant. In the Matter of Barbara Lucia, Respondent, v Board of Education of East Meadow Union Free School District, Appellant, No. 51, No. 52, COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK, 2014 N.Y. LEXIS 997; 2014 NY Slip Op 3189; 199, L.R.R.M. 3291, May 6, 2014

Update : Does the Appellate Division agree with the lower court that the Special Commissioner of Investigation has no power to force a tenured teacher to testify about a matter covered by 3020-a?

Yes. In a post one year ago Supreme Court Justice Carol Huff denied the Special Commissioner of Investigation’s application to force a tenured teacher to give testimony in a matter covered under the protections of 3020-a, the teacher’s right to an adversarial hearing. The Appellate Division has now affirmed. Since testifying before the SCI would be admissable at a 3020-a hearing, ” forcing a tenured teacher or assistant principal to testify in an SCI proceeding is tantamount to forcing that employee to testify in a DOE disciplinary proceeding, which directly conflicts with state law, Education Law 3020(3)(c)(i).”

Condon v. Sabater (App. Div., 1st Dept.)

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.

Does the termination of a dean of discipline for excessive corporeal punishment “shock the conscience” of the court?

Yes. A dean of discipline of a middle school in a gang-infested area of East New York, Brooklyn, was brought up on 3020-a charges of excessive corporeal punishment stemming from allegations that he placed an 11 year old in a headlock and threw a 13 year old against the wall. The dean denied both allegations and despite his statements the hearing found his story to be completely untrue and terminated him.

In a 3020-a hearing the Court will usually accept the facts as found by the arbitrator. The penalty, however, is held to a standard enunciated under Pell v. Board of Education. While this standard is less than precise it generally will defer to the arbitrator’s decision, after a full review of the teacher’s record, unless it “shocks the conscience” of the Court. In Principe v. Department or Education, it did.

The DOE argued that other cases of a single incident of corporal punishment which resulted in termination had been previously upheld by the Court. Both the Appellate Division, First Department and the Court of Appeals disagreed. In this case Peter Principe’s position of dean of discipline at a troubled middle school had to be taken into consideration. The cases cited by the DOE involved teachers in non-dean roles. Additionally the Appellate Division found, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, the arbitrator was totally biased against Principe and should not have discounted his whole testimony.

In the Matter of Peter Principe, Respondent, v New York City Department of Education, Appellant. 6289, 116031/09. SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT, 94 A.D.3d 431; 941 N.Y.S.2d 574; 2012 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2490; 2012 NY Slip Op 2560 April 5, 2012, Decided.

In the Matter of Peter Principe, Respondent, v New York City Department of Education, Appellant. No. 240 SSM 41, COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK, 2012 N.Y. LEXIS 3632; 2012 NY Slip Op 8568, December 13, 2012, Decided

Can a 3020-a decision be reversed as too lenient?

Yes. Douglas Coleman, a 25 year tenured Social Studies teacher employed by the Dundee Central School District was charged with various specifications characterized as conduct unbecoming a teacher and insubordination. Dundee alleged that Coleman had given an exam in one of his classes which, among other things, “contain[ed] inappropriate and suggestive vocabulary words including “yu dick”, “grandma dick” and “Mrs. Dick” …. The second group of charges is that one of the students in the aforementioned class was a student with a disability of high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, and on her test, Coleman had captioned two cartoon figures of aliens, with the student’s name by one figure and her personal tutor’s name by the other . The third group of charges is that in September of 2007, Coleman attempted to bypass the established District procedure with respect to the utilization of movies within his class” when he showed the movie, “Attica.”

Coleman had been given counseling memos when these incidents occurred and the hearing officer, having found that these incidents were not repeated, dismissed the charges since the school district had already decided how to deal with these infractions. The hearing officer, based on other charges then decided to suspend Coleman for 6 months but required that the District continue to pay for his medical insurance. The District appealed to State Supreme Court.

Justice W. Patrick Falvey of Yates County Supreme Court ruled that the suspension with medical insurance was not valid under 3020-a since the statute contemplated suspensions with no payments. Additionally it was wrong for the hearing officer to dismiss the charges as the District did not waive its right to serve charges where counseling memos were previously utilized.

Justice Falvey remitted the matter back to the District to reconsider the dismissed charges and penalty.

Upon remand the hearing officer dismissed many of the charges again but this time found Coleman guilty of a few of the formally dismissed charges. He imposed the same penalty.

Justice Falvey found that ” the Hearing Officer’s decision regarding penalty lacks a rational basis, due to his improper reliance on the premise that Dundee had to prove Coleman repeated the misconduct that gave rise to the counseling memoranda, before he would consider Dundee’s request for a penalty.”

Coleman 1, In the Matter of the Application of the Board of Education of the Dundee Central School District, Petitioner, against Douglas Coleman Respondent, 2010-0248,  SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, YATES COUNTY, 2010 NY Slip Op 51684U; 29 Misc. 3d 1204A; 2010 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4689

 

Coleman II, Board of Education of the Dundee Central School District, Petitioner, against Douglas Coleman, Respondent, 2011-0011, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, YATES COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 21157; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1999,  April 29, 2011, Decided

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