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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Determining seniority for tenure purposes

Determining seniority for tenure purposes
Kaufman v Fallsburg CSD, Court of Appeals, 91 NY2d 57

Seniority is probably the most critical factor in determining who may be lawfully retained in a layoff situation. In the Kaufman case, the New York Court of Appeals addressed the competing seniority claims of two elementary grade teachers seeking to avoid being excessed by the Fallsburg Central School District.

Two teachers, Forman and Kaufman, were both appointed to the elementary tenure area on September 1, 1992. Forman had been given a probationary appointment in the special education tenure area in November 1990 but in the 1991-92 academic year she was assigned to teach sixth grade subjects to mixed classes consisting of regular education students and six learning-disabled special needs students. On September 1, 1992, the District additionally appointed Foreman to the elementary tenure area, and assigned her to teach fourth grade.

Kaufman, who had prior service in the District as a substitute teacher, also received a probationary appointment in the elementary tenure area on September 1, 1992. Kaufman then took over the instruction of Foreman's sixth grade class.

Effective June 30, 1994, the District abolished four elementary education positions. Kaufman was excessed when the District determined that she had the least seniority in the elementary tenure area. Kaufman sued, contending that she was entitled to additional credit in the elementary tenure area for the two months she taught as a regular substitute elementary teacher during the 1991-1992 school year and thus had greater seniority in the elementary tenure area than did Foreman.

While the District conceded that Kaufman was entitled to the two months of additional credit as she claimed, it said it had also recalculated Foreman's seniority and concluded that she was entitled to additional credit in the elementary tenure area for the entire 1991-1992 school year during which she taught the mixed sixth grade class of regular education and special needs students. This, the District argued, meant that Foreman still remained senior to Kaufman in the elementary tenure area.

Kaufman challenged this, contending that: (1) The facts in the record did not establish that Foreman served in the elementary tenure area during the 1991-1992 school year; and (2) the District did not have any authority to grant Foreman seniority credit in the elementary tenure area as of September 1991 because the District (a) failed to expressly notify Foreman that her assignment for the 1991-1992 school year was outside her initial special education appointment, and (b) it had not obtained Foreman's prior written consent to that out-of-tenure area assignment.

These omissions, Kaufman contended, barred the District from retroactively crediting Foreman with elementary tenure area seniority for her service during the 1991-1992 school year. A New York State Supreme Court justice disagreed, reasoning that accepting Kaufman's theory would penalize teachers for school district mistakes by depriving them of credit to which they would have been entitled but for the school district's error. The Appellate Division concurred with the Supreme Court's analysis and affirmed the lower court's ruling (234 AD2d 698).

The Court of Appeals agreed, dismissing Kaufman's appeal. It said that the lower courts "correctly concluded that there was a sound factual basis for the District's determination that Foreman devoted a substantial portion of her time during the 1991-1992 school year to teaching in the elementary tenure area." The Court said that the record contains "ample evidence to support the District's finding that Foreman devoted over 40% of her time to teaching the "common branch subjects" of reading, science, arithmetic and language arts to her sixth grade students."*

The Court also held that the fact that some of her sixth-graders were learning-disabled special needs students "does not, under these circumstances, compel a different conclusion and thus Foreman was entitled to seniority credit in the elementary tenure area for her service during the 1991-1992 school year."

What about the District's failure to comply with the notice provisions set out in 8 NYCRR 30.9(b)? Shouldn't this prevent the District from giving Foreman retroactive elementary area seniority credit for the 1991-1992 sixth-grade assignment?

The Court of Appeals said that "concededly, Foreman was not formally notified that her assignment to teach sixth grade in 1991-1992 was out of her original tenure area, and her consent was not obtained." More important, said the Court, 8 NYCRR 30.9(b) was promulgated pursuant to a legislative tenure scheme designed "to protect competent teachers from the abuses they might be subjected to if they could be dismissed at the whim of their supervisors," citing Ricca v Board of Education., 47 NY2d 385, 391.

Finding that the underlying purpose of 8 NYCRR 30.9(b) is not fulfilled by applying that provision to block a teacher from receiving seniority credit which, absent school district error, would have been received by reason of actual service in an out-of-tenure area, the Court said that the regulation has a two-fold protective purpose: (1) it protects teachers from being required to accept assignments outside of their designated tenure areas involuntarily; and (2) it protects teachers from being deprived of credit in a previously appointed tenure area if they unwittingly accept, and serve in, out-of-area assignments.

The Court of Appeals concluded that 8 NYCRR 30.9(b) was intended, and has been consistently construed administratively, as a safeguard for teachers who are assigned (either involuntarily or without their knowledge) outside of their designated tenure areas. Accordingly, the provision should not be interpreted to prevent a teacher from knowingly and voluntarily waiving that section's consent requirement when strict application of the regulation would itself impose adverse consequences upon the teacher.

* 8 NYCRR 30.1[g] provides that a "substantial portion" of the teacher's time "means 40 percent or more of the total time spent by a professional educator in the performance of his [or her] duties, exclusive of time spent in preparation, monitoring or in co-curricular activities."

If you are interested in learning more about layoff procedures involving employees in the public service in New York State please click here: http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Attorney in private practice employed by municipality to conduct an investigation claims qualified immunity when sued by employee

Attorney in private practice employed by municipality to conduct an investigation claims qualified immunity when sued by employee
Delia v. City of Rialto, USCA, 9th Circuit, No. 09-55514, decided September 9, 2010

In this 42 USC §1983 action, Firefighter Nicholas B. Delia sued the City of Rialto, the Rialto Fire Department, a number of Rialto Fire Department officials and a private attorney, Steve Filarsky alleging violations of his constitutional rights during a departmental internal affairs investigation in which he was involved.

Although the Ninth Circuit concluded that Delia’s constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment were violated as the result of a warrantless search of his home, it also determined that this right was not clearly established at the time of this constitutional violation. Accordingly, the Circuit Court affirmed the district court’s order granting qualified immunity to the several fire officials named in Delia’ complaint and affirmed the lower court’s granting the City’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Delia’s complaint.

The Circuit Court, however, reverse the district court’s granting qualified immunity to Filarsky, the private attorney retained by the City in the course of its investigation of Delia.*

The court explained that the doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” citing Pearson v Callahan, 129 S. Ct. 808.

In Pearson the Supreme Court indicated that the basis for proving public officials with “qualified immunity” was to balance “two important interests — the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”

Addressing the lower court’s deeming Filarsky eligible for such qualified immunity, the Circuit Court said that “Unlike the other individual defendants in this case, Filarsky is not an employee of the City." Rather, said the court, he is a private attorney, retained by the City to perform certain services in connection with an internal affairs investigation.

Delia contended that Filarsky, as a private attorney, was not entitled to claim a qualified immunity while Filarsky argued that under the circumstances, and his work on behalf of the City, this was “a distinction without a difference.”

In support of his argument Filarsky cited Culliman v Abramson, 128 F.3d 301. In Culliman the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a law firm that had been hired by the City of Louisville to serve as outside counsel was entitled to qualified immunity against plaintiffs’ §1983 claims.

In Culliman the court said “We see no good reason to hold the city’s in-house counsel eligible for qualified immunity and not the city’s outside counsel.”

Acknowledging the 6th Circuit’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit court noted that in Gonzalez v Spencer, 336 F.3d 832, a different panel of the 9th Circuit held that a private attorney representing a county was not entitled to qualified immunity.

The defendant in Gonzales was a private attorney retained to defend Los Angeles County in an underlying civil rights suit brought by the plaintiff.

In rejecting the attorney’s claim of qualified immunity, the Gonzales court reasoned, “[the attorney] is not entitled to qualified immunity. She is a private party, not a government employee, and she has pointed to ‘no special reasons significantly favoring an extension of governmental immunity’ to private parties in her position.’”

The Circuit Court said that it was bound by the Gonzalez decision as Filarsky did not allege any “intervening en banc decision [by the Ninth Circuit], Supreme Court decision,** or intervening legislation which would permit us to overrule the holding in Gonzalez.”

Thus, said the court, Filarsky was not entitled to qualified immunity as a private attorney performing services for a public entity and reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in his favor. It then remanded the matter for trial or “further proceedings as determined by the district court.”

* Filarsky had previously represented the City in conducting interviews during internal affairs investigations.

** The 6th Circuit’s holding in Culliman and the 9th Circuit’s holding in Gonzalez suggests that the issue of whether an attorney in private practice performing services on behalf of a government entity may claim a “qualified immunity” if named as a defendant as the result of some act or omission in the performance of his or her duties may be ripe for consideration by the Supreme Court.

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