Can a U-rating be reversed when a teacher is disciplined for protected activity?

Yes. The Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act codifies public employee labor relations in New York State. The statutory framework provides for a Board to oversee the public employee labor relations and has certain powers to protect public employees engaged in Union activity termed protected activity.

Rodriguez taught at P.S. 173 and for 32 years “had an unblemished record.” He was also the Chapter Leader at the school and had never filed a grievance on his behalf. In April 2010 he submitted a preference sheet and was not assigned his preference. He filed a grievance.

Rodriguez alleged that, as a result of his grievance, he was subjected to an excessive number of classroom visits and observations including 58 unannounced “pop-in” visits. After the filing of a second grievance regarding lesson plans Rodriguez was subjected to still further scrutiny.

Additional animus was evident from the filing of a disciplinary letter to Rodriguez file and rating him with a U-rating.

Rodriguez appealed to PERB where he demonstrated the anti-union activity bias. AlJ Elena Cacavas ruled that the DOE had violated the act and ordered that the disciplinary letter and unsatisfactory rating be rescinded.

Rodriguez v. DOE

Will the failure to note a previously observed deficiency in a subsequent observation annul a U-rating?

Yes. Aisha Brown, a long time paraprofessional turned teacher was still on probation when she received a U-rating for the 2009-2010 school year. While her petition for reinstatement was denied due to its being untimely the part of her petition seeking to annul her U-rating was timely.

The Appellate Division, First Department found that following Brown’s first year as a probationary special education teacher in 2008-09, she  received a satisfactory rating and also received a satisfactory review for her teaching during the summer 2009 session. Brown was not assigned a coach until the third month of the 2009-2010 school year, and the principal informally observed her teaching for the first time at the end of January 2010, the day after she had asked for help and complained that her literacy coach was ineffective. Pursuant to the principal’s January 28, 2010 observation of her literacy class, Brown received a written evaluation generally criticizing her for failing to have a daily lesson plan. The principal formally observed petitioner’s literacy lesson on March 2, 2010, and again rated it unsatisfactory, but, she was not provided with the post-observation written evaluation until June 7, 2010. The report listed a litany of criticisms, none of which centered on the deficiencies noted in the informal observation. Brown was again formally observed by the assistant principal on June 16, 2010, and the written evaluation, provided to her on June 24th, noted many of the same deficiencies indicated in the June 7th report.
The principal issued the 2009-10 annual professional performance review on June 22, 2010, rating petitioner unsatisfactory for the year, and recommending discontinuance of her probationary employment.

Brown’s initial application for reinstatement and reversal of her U-rating was denied by New York County Supreme Court Justice Alexander W. Hunter, Jr. The Appellate Division reversed her U-rating finding that Brown initial deficiencies were not noted in subsequent observations and her final observation was not received until more that 3 months had elapsed making “the deficiencies in the rating of petitioner were not merely technical, but undermined the integrity and fairness of the entire review process.”

In re Aisha Brown (11/7/2013)

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.


Is an allegation that the PIP+ program always leads to teacher termination sufficient for a judge to hear an appeal on the merits of a 3020-a hearing?

No. The PIP+ program, a creature of the UFT last collective bargaining agreement, provides allegedly incompetent teachers with a way to deal with these allegations. While designed to help teachers the program, as charged by Christopher Lobo, a twenty year tenured Earth Science teacher from Forest Hills High School, was a sham resulting in an almost certain termination recommendation.

PIP+, purportedly patterned after the union’s peer intervention program, provides for non-DOE evaluators to give assistance to allegedly incompetent teachers. A major difference between the union peer intervention program and PIP+ is that the PIP+ lacks confidentiality. All aspects of the allegedly incompetent teacher’s participation or lack thereof is admissible in a subsequent 3020-a hearing.

Lobo went through the PIP+ program but claimed it was rigged against him and asserted that no one had successfully completed the program. He also claimed that the DOE offered him no help and the observations that supported his U-ratings were flawed because they were completed by supervisors who were not familiar with his subject area.

Arbitrator Lawrence Henderson, in a 103 page decision, found that the observations were proper and he was provided support during the PIP+ period when “in addition [to] having access to staff development days, petitioner was provided with assistance before and after each of Principal Gootnick’s and A.P. Hoffman’s observations, and peer review by RMC Research Corporation, “a private vendor selected by the Department and the UFT” from April 2, 2009 to June 2, 2009. “

Upon appeal to State Supreme Court Justice Joan B. Lobis granted the City’s motion to dismiss finding that Lobo’s claims were insufficient to reverse Henderson’s termination finding.

Lobis wrote, “In light of Hearing Officer Henderson’s findings that petitioner was underperforming as an educator for two straight years, even after being offered resources to improve, petitioner cannot argue that the penalty of termination was unwarranted.”

CHRISTOPHER LOBO, Petitioner, -against- CITY OF NEW YORK; and NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION; JOEL KLEIN, CHANCELLOR of NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Respondents, Index No. 116548/10, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 31902U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3426, July 7, 2011, Decided

Will a U-rating be upheld if the reviewing administrator violates a non-substantial right of a teacher when rating the teacher?

Yes. Mitchel Cohn is a tenured  teacher at Williamsburg Middle School Academy (MS 50K). In June 2006 he received a  U-rating. He received another U-rating in June 2007. The second U-rating was based, according to his rating sheet, on 5 informal observations taken place in March and May of 2007. Cohn appealed the rating and despite his argument that he was never given pre or post observation conferences required by the UFT contract his appeal was denied.

Cohn also argued that the failure to provide formal observations, since he was a previously designated U-rated teacher, required formal observations and these rights were outlined in the DOE’s rating manual and Special Circular 45.

On appeal to State Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger held that only “substantial rights” violations would cause the Court to overrule the Chancellor’s final determination of a U-rating. While Justice Schlesinger noted that an Appellate Court had held that “the standard of review in such cases required reversal of an agency’s decision when the relevant agency does not comply with either a mandatory provision or one thas was :intended to be strictly enforced.”  Blaize v Klein, 68 AD3d 759, 761, 889 N.Y.S.2d 665 (2nd Dept., 2009).

So what constitutes a substantial right? Schlesinger held that “The review process that petitioner claims was violated is not found in a statute or regulation, but rather in the CBA and various handbooks. The document where the review process first appears is entitled “Guidelines” and reads as such. Further, that the pre-observation aspect of the Formal Observation model is described slightly differently in the various documents further reinforces the fact that the APPR is intended to act as a set of somewhat flexible guidelines rather than as a directive that must be strictly enforced and that guarantees a substantial right.”

To show a pre-observation conference was a mandatory provision Cohn would have had to show how those conferences deprived him of substantial rights, which the Court found he had not.

In the Matter of the Application of Mitchell Cohn, Petitioner, against Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York; and JOEL I. KLEIN as Chancellor of the City School District of the City of New York, Respondents. 110409/10, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 51070U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2829, June 7, 2011, Decided

Can the DOE prohibit, after school hours, the use of school facilities for religious ceremonies?

Yes.
The area of the role of the separation of church and state has been no more litigated than in the area of public education. While the Supreme Court has not dealt with the establishment or free exercise clause until the 1930’s, since then, the amount of litigation has geometrically progressed.

Schools, as public buildings, permit the use of their facilities for a variety of purposes for the benefit of the community. When the use of the facilities involve religious organizations the rules become complicated.

In 1994 when Bronx Household applied for a permit to use a local school on Saturday the application was denied by the DOE because it ran afoul of the DOE’s Standard Operating Manual which prohibited school facilities for religious ceremony or instruction. The action to set this aside failed and the Second Circuit, in Bronx Household I dismissed the application.

After Bronx Household I was decided the US Supreme Court decided Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which held that it was unconstitutional for a public school district to exclude from its facilities “a private Christian organization for children,” which had requested permission to use space in a school building after school hours to sing songs, read Bible lessons, memorize scripture, and pray. Bronx Household applied, again, for use of DOE facilities. The DOE denied the application but the court overruled it based on Good News.

The DOE then amended their SOP to state,

No permit shall be granted for the purpose of holding religious worship services, or otherwise using a school as a house of worship. Permits may be granted to religious clubs for students that are sponsored by outside organizations and otherwise satisfy the requirements of this chapter on the same basis that they are granted to other clubs for students that are sponsored by outside organizations.

With this change the DOE, once again, denied Bronx Household’s application and this time the Court agreed. Being a “limited public forum” the DOE had the right of content discrimination but not viewpoint discrimination. While these are legal terms of art they essentially boil down to the idea that the DOE can restrict certain practices but not viewpoint. Religious worship is a type of practice that the DOE can prohibit and thus its denial of the second Bronx Household’s application was proper.

THE BRONX HOUSEHOLD OF FAITH, ROBERT HALL, and JACK ROBERTS, Plaintiff-Appellees, v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK and COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 10, Defendant-Appellants.,UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 11107, October 6, 2009, Argued, June 2, 2011, Decided


Is a claim for hostile work environment cognizable when it is based on student to teacher hostility?

Yes. Eva Berger-Rothberg, a special education teacher with over 18 years’ experience, was assigned to MS 226Q in the 2005-2006 school year. Her class assignment can only be described as a “class from hell.”

From her complaint Berger-Rothberg was subjected to an escalating pattern of abuse from her students based on her gender and religion. Some students would refer to her as a “fucking Jew,” “Jew bastard,” and “white Jewish bitch.” Her pleas for help were generally ignored and after an incident in which one of her students rubbed his penis against her and another put his tongue in her ear she used her cell phone and called police. The principal put a letter in her file threatening her with termination if she continued to use her cell phone in class which was against school policy.

Berger-Rothberrg received a “U”-rating for the school year despite the fact that she had been only observed once. She reluctantly retired and file a discrimination suit.

Federal District Court Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, in rejecting the DOE’s attempt to dismiss Berger-Rothberg’s claims found sufficient evidence of workplace hostility to go forward to trial. While the Judge could find no specific case dealing with student to teacher hostility, the alleged refusal of MS 226Q administration officials to deal with the situation and indirectly enabling it made Berger-Rothberg’s claims ripe for a jury trial.

Judge Mauskopf found that “In order to establish a retaliatory hostile work environment, a plaintiff must satisfy the same standard used to evaluate conventional hostile work environment claims by showing that the incidents of harassment following complaints were sufficiently continuous and severe to have altered the conditions of employment.” Berger-Rothberg, at least at this stage, has established such a case.

EVA BERGER-ROTHBERG, Plaintiff, – against – CITY OF NEW YORK, and NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendants, 07-CV-1878, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29922, March 22, 2011.