Can the DOE withhold legal representation in a civil suit brought against a teacher while a disciplinary proceeding is pending?

Yes. While fortunately not a frequent occurrence, our students and others do sue teachers and other school staff members for injuries allegedly caused by school staff during the course of their employment. General Municipal Law Section 50-k and Education Law 3028 provide that city employees have the right to have the Corporation Counsel represent them and the city pick up any resulting judgment if the employee was acting within the “scope of his employment.”

The critical issue is what was in this “scope” as an employee, for example committing a criminal assault on student would not be covered under this law.

Kevin Martin is a tenured teacher and was assigned to Aspire Preparatory School, MS 322X. While teaching Martin tried to stop a student from disrupting the class. After each request by Martin to the student to stop disrupting the class the student verbally responded with profanity. Martin told the student to go the dean.

According to Martin’s petition, “As a disciplinary measure and the course and scope of Martin’s employment, Martin then removed the aforementioned student chair from beneath the feat of student S[…], whereupon Martin lost control of the chair which fell to the floor at student S[…]’s feet.”

The student and his mother started a civil suit against Martin and Martin requested legal representation which was denied due, in part to an OSI report which found Martin had thrown the chair.

Justice Alice Schlesinger of New York Supreme Court had no problem finding that Martin’s action was within the scope of his employment as disciplinary actions against students are clearly envisioned in the statute. The Court nonetheless after determining that the timeline was suspect (the incident occurred in 2008, the civil suit filed in 2009 and the OSI investigation and charges against Martin were done in 2010) found that there was nothing arbitrary or capricious in the denial of legal representation during the course of the disciplinary proceedings. The Court advised that Martin could commence his own civil action for attorney fees and resulting judgment in the future, if the facts warrant.

In the Matter of KEVIN MARTIN, Petitioner, -against- BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, JOEL J. KLEIN, as Chancellor of the City School District of the City of New York, and the CITY OF NEW York, Respondents, For a Judgment Pursuant to Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 30983U; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1795, April 12, 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.