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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."

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New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor members of the NYPPL staff are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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