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 the failure of the DOE to follow the UFT contract’s requirement to reduce OSI investigations to writing within 6 months prevent a teacher from being disciplined under 3020-a?

Article 21, C(4) of the UFT contract provides that when an investigation of a teacher is conducted any report must be reduced in writing, given to the teacher with an opportunity to respond in writing within 6 months of the date of the incident investigated or the date that the DOE should have discovered it.

Phyllis Nuchman, a 29 year veteran special education teacher was charged with 3 specification dealing with her responsibilities with maintaining special education records and IEP conferences. The charges resulted from an SCI/OSI investigation which took longer than six months to complete. It was undisputed that neither Nuchman or her UFT rep were given written copies of the investigation or given a chance to respond before charges were lodged against her.

Arbitrator Jay Siegel denied Nuchman’s motion to dismiss the charges based on the DOE’s failure to comply with the UFT contract. After a hearing Nuchman was suspended for 4 months.

On appeal to State Supreme Court Nuchman reargued the motion to dismiss claiming that the provisions of the contract required that the investigation be completed within 6 months. Justice Cynthia Kern found that there was nothing in the contract which specifically prevented the DOE from bringing charges that were not reduced to writing within six months. Justice Kern found that the arbitrator correctly weighed Nuchman’s 29 years of service and rejected the DOE’s attempt to terminate her. Justice Kern found that the 4 month suspension was reasonable.

Observation: The contract language is pretty strong. It provides that “The writing may not be incorporated into the employee’s personnel file or record, unless this procedure is followed, and any such writing will be removed when an employee’s claim that it is inaccurate or unfair is sustained.” Given this strong language it is hard to imagine how charges can be sustained if is not part of an employees file.
In the Matter of the Application of PHYLLIS NUCHMAN, Petitioner, -against- JOEL I. KLEIN, CHANCELLOR, NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, and THE NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Respondents, To Vacate a Decision of a Hearing Officer Pursuant to Education Law Section 3020-a and CPLR Section 7511. Index No. 111217/10, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 30694U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1215, March 10, 2011