New York State School Boards Association

New York's highest court upholds three teacher termination sanctions

by Jeffrey Mongelli

On Board Online • February 5, 2018

By Jeffrey Mongelli
Senior Staff Counsel

The New York Court of Appeals has determined that a lower state appellate court exceeded its authority when it determined that termination was not an appropriate penalty in three separate teacher discipline cases.

The reversal invoked a judicial standard that courts generally must uphold penalties imposed as part of an administrative disciplinary process. An exception applies if the penalty "shocks one's conscience." This is called the Pell standard.

The cases that were overturned were all decided by a court with jurisdiction over New York County (Manhattan) - the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, First Department. In each case, the First Department found the penalty of termination violated the Pell standard and sent each case back to a hearing officer for a lesser penalty.

According to the Court of Appeals - New York's highest court - the First Department erred by reweighing the evidence in the record and substituting its own judgment for that of the hearing officer. "That reasonable minds might disagree over what the proper penalty should have been does not provide a basis for vacating [an arbitrator's decision] or refashioning the penalty," the Court of Appeals concluded in a case called Matter of Bolt, named for one of the three teachers discussed.

Each of the three termination penalties was initially imposed after section 3020-a proceedings in which hearing officers found each teacher, respectively, guilty of some form of misconduct. One of the teachers involved encouraged students to cheat in state assessments, another falsified documents related to the provision of educational services to a particular student, and the third engaged in inappropriate conversations with female students.

A concurring opinion by one of the Court of Appeals judges, Jenny Rivera, provides additional background and explains in more detail the well-established standards that apply to a court's review of penalty determinations.

Matter of Bolt v. New York CityDep't of Education

This case involved a fifth-grade teacher whom the hearing officer found improperly assisted students during the administration of the statewide English Language Arts examination in violation of applicable testing protocols. Such actions also caused an inaccurate measurement of student performance.

According to the arbitrator, termination was warranted based on gross misconduct, neglect of duty and the teacher's failure to serve as a positive role model. In contrast, the First Department ruled that the penalty shocked the conscience because the teacher had an unblemished 11-year record, "whose behavior, while wrong, demonstrated a one-time lapse in judgment, and no evidence suggested that she could not remedy her behavior."

But, as explained by Judge Rivera, the First Department failed to properly consider the severity of the misconduct. In addition, there is "nothing shocking to the conscience about imposing termination as a penalty on a teacher who encourages her students to cheat on statewide examinations." Furthermore, "the termination of an employee with an unblemished history [in and of itself] is [not] shocking to the judicial conscience."

The teacher, according to Rivera, "set a terrible example for her impressionable students, for whom she served as both a role model and authority figure." Not only was her misconduct serious but it also had an "adverse impact on [her students'] education and development." A penalty other than termination carried the " encourage similar future misconduct by teaching staff, undermining the integrity of statewide measures of student progress and the public education system."

Matter of Beatty v. City of New York

In this case, a special education teacher with 17 years of service worked in the district's Home Instruction Program (HIP), where teachers provide instruction to students unable to receive instruction in a regular classroom because of medical or psychiatric reasons. Teachers in that program work "in the field" on an honor system with little supervision. They are responsible for making their own schedules and informing their supervisors of any changes to those schedules. In addition, they are required to maintain accurate employment records and for submitting daily work logs and monthly time sheets to account for their work.

A special investigator for the district determined that the teacher had not met with a particular student on 24 occasions despite her certifications to the contrary. The teacher admitted that she did not provide services to the student after Hurricane Sandy and that she "submitted false daily logs and time sheets." In addition, the teacher did not discuss the situation with her supervisor, nor did she offer an explanation for such failure. Based on the evidence, the hearing officer did not consider her actions an "inadvertent error or even sloppy paperwork" although the First Department determined that her misconduct was better classified as "lax bookkeeping" because she provided services to other students on the days in question and would have received the same pay either way.

The hearing officer found termination an appropriate penalty because the teacher's "behavior undermined the trust" on which the program is based and she failed to both take responsibility for her conduct and recognize the harm her actions caused the student.

The First Department disagreed with the penalty and remanded the case, but was overruled by the Court of Appeals.

In her concurring opinion, Rivera explained that, contrary to the First Department's determination, the teacher's termination did not shock the conscience because her actions constituted "serious violations and breaches of the public trust." In addition, they deprived the student of the opportunity for a replacement teacher and some level of instructional stability.

Matter of Williams v. City of New York

In this case, the evidence at the hearing demonstrated that a middle school physical education teacher with 13 years of service initiated conversations with several of his eighth-grade female students, asking if they had "eligible" older sisters and, if so, a physical description and their telephone numbers.

One student who testified at the teacher's disciplinary hearing testified that she felt "kind of uncomfortable" with his behavior and another student stated that she was "kind of aggravated." The hearing officer rejected the teacher's claim that his statements were made jokingly. The hearing officer's decision also made note that the teacher stated he did not consider himself a role model for the students.

Based on the evidence in the record, the hearing officer determined that termination was warranted since the teacher showed an inability to provide a safe and appropriate learning environment for his students by engaging in behavior that was "miles beyond any appropriate boundary between teacher and student." In addition, the hearing officer found that he abused his position of power "for his own benefit, without regard to the lessons he was passing on to impressionable young girls."

He also exhibited an apparent lack of remorse, according to the hearing officer.

Nevertheless, the First Department considered termination to be an inappropriate penalty because the teacher's inquiries could not be characterized as "romantic/sexual in nature" or for the purpose of "soliciting female companions for sexual gratification."

As explained by Rivera, reversal of the First Department's ruling was appropriate because it was based on an improper weighing of the evidence that ignored the hearing officer's credibility determinations. The evidence showed the teacher utterly failed "to appreciate his impact on his students' educational and personal development." His actions "crossed the line of a proper student-teacher relationship and demonstrated a lack of professional understanding of the potential harm inflicted on his students by seeking to date their female relatives."

Furthermore, his actions "directly conflicted with and undermined [the district's] mission by sending the message that women are measured by their physical appearance rather than their character and the strength of their ideas."

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