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Cacavas ruled that the DOE had violated the act and ordered that the disciplinary letter and unsatisfactory rating be rescinded.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

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)

Will a “u”-rating be upheld when the rated teacher claims that her rating was based on retaliation for her grievance about an OEO finding against her?

Yes. In 1991 Tracey Elcock began working for the DOE as a para and was appointed as a special education teacher in 2001. From her appointment until an allegation about her uttering a racial slur and reported by a guidance counselor she received satisfactory ratings.

After an investigation the OEO found that Elcock had violated the Chancellor’s Regulations and recommended that a letter be placed in her personnel file.

Elcock grieved the letter and at the end of the school year received a “u”-rating. She claimed that her rating was in retaliation for her grievance.

The DOE argued that the rating was based on attendance and on a incident in which she allegedly belittled her special education students.

Justice Joan Lobis found that Elcock had not met her burden of demonstrating that the principal’s action was either arbitrary or capricious despite the fact that only two students complained about her alleged statements and that their statements were inconsistent. Justice Lobis observed that it was not the Court’s function to determine credibility.

In the Matter of an Article 78 Proceeding TRACEY ELCOCK, Petitioner, -against- JOEL KLEIN, as the Chancellor of the Department of Education of the City of New York, CITY OF NEW YON, and NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Respondents. Index No., SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 30537U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 950, February 18, 2011

Can a probationary teaching assistant utilize the state whistleblower law to defeat a school district’s motion to dismiss her petition for reinstatement?

Yes. Civil Service Law Section 75-b, the public sector component of the state’s whistleblower law, protects public employees from termination if they report a violation of law, rule or regulation which violation creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety or which the employee reasonably believes to be true and reasonably believes constitutes an improper governmental action. The provision applies to tenured employees only in so far as it may be raised as a defense in a disciplinary arbitration (where a contract calls for that) and applies to probationers if they seek reinstatement from court.

Maureen Sheil began her probation as a teaching assistant in the Merrick Union Free School District in 2009. One of her colleagues was removed from her school after he was charged with possession of child pornography. Sheil became concerned that another of her colleagues, who still kept ties with the removed teaching assistant, supported the removed teaching assistant in such a way that she believed he presented a danger to students at her school. Sheil reported her concerns to the school’s administration only to be later targeted for what Sheil charged was retaliation for her complaint. Sheil was eventually dismissed by the school district.

Sheil raised Civil Service Law Section 75-b to claim that the dismissal was taken in retaliation for her reporting the association of her colleague with the removed teaching assistant.

Justice Denise Sher of Nassau Supreme Court found that Sheil had made a a viable claim and ordered the school district to answer her petition.

In the Matter of the Application of MAUREEN SHEIL, Petitioner, for a Judgment pursuant to Article 78 of the Civil Practice Laws and Rules, – against – DR. RANIER W. MELUCCI, Superintendent of Schools, Merrick Union Free School District, BOARD OF EDUCATION OF MERRICK UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT, and MERRICK UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT, Respondents, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NASSAU COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 31242U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2208, April 28, 2011

 

Will failure to file a specific notice of claim defeat a school secretary’s workplace condition complaint?

Yes. Lynne Schnell, a school secretary at Aviation High School and her son, brought an action in Queens Supreme Court for working conditions against the City, school administrators and the Chapter Leader.

Schnell complained that her workspace had no windows, ventilation or adequate air and had reached a temperature of 120° F. She complained to the school’s administration, the UFT, the Department of Health and the DOE component of the Public Employee Safety and Health Board to no avail.

During the last two weeks of June 2006 she came to school seeking relocation and upon not being relocated she left. An S rating was changed to a U rating for excessive absences. Her claimed injuries included intentional infliction of emotional distress and the development of a  staph  infection.   Schnell  also  alleged  that  the  Chapter  Leader  “came  into her room [, room] 149F, blocked the door and proceeded to scream and curse at her and throw a chair at her for complaining.”

A 3020-a proceeding was brought against Schnell and was settled with a stipulation in which she agreed to withdraw all of her claims against the DOE except for a claim involving whistleblowing. This last claim was not included on her notice of claim.

Leaving the remaining claim off of her notice of claim proved fatal to her lawsuit and Justice Kevin J. Kerrigan summarily dismissed her claim.

Lynne Schnell and Luke Serkanic, Plaintiff, – against – The City of New York, New York City Department of Education, Ralph Santiago, Eileen Taylor, Joyce Seiden, Dino Charlalambous, Jerry Frohnhoefer, Soraya Cuervo-Digiorgio, and Mary Vigoa, Defendants, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, QUEENS COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 31220U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2168, April 11, 2011

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.