Thursday, July 07, 2011

Activities by teachers in the course of collective bargaining are not protected activities within the meaning of the Taylor Law when such activities place students at risk

Activities by teachers in the course of collective bargaining are not protected activities within the meaning of the Taylor Law when such activities place students at risk
Lucia v Board of Educ. of the E. Meadow Union Free School Dist., 2011 NY Slip Op 51210(U), Supreme Court, Nassau County, Judge Vito M. DeStefano, Not selected for publication in the Official Reports.

Although teachers of the Woodland Middle School of the East Meadow Union Free School District were provided with their own parking spaces on school property, one day several teachers parked their cars along the curb in front of the school, an area designated as the schools student "drop off" area, in an effort "intended to achieve a new collective bargaining agreement." 

East Meadow, alleging that because of rain, heavy traffic, and the presence of parked cars at both the curbs in front of the school, parents were forced to drop off their children in the middle of the street, filed disciplinary charges against Barbara Lucia and three other teachers who allegedly parked their cars along the curbside on that day.

Following the resulting disciplinary hearing, the Hearing Officer ruled that the District had sustained its burden of proof on the charges filed against the teachers.Noting that protected union activity may lose its status by the manner in which it was conducted, the Hearing Officer ruled, in relevant part that:

“Based upon the finding that [her] actions created a safety hazard for the children, I do not find that [her] actions . . . were protected activity. . . . It is foreseeable that where so many cars are parked at that location it would delay the drop off of students … Albeit a lapse in judgment, [Lucia's] actions took place outside the school, and there is no evidence that they had any impact on her role as a teacher with considerable experience. A fine of one thousand ($1,000) dollars should serve to remind her that her actions that morning were inappropriate.

Lucia filed a petition pursuant to CPLR 7511 seeking an order vacating the decision of the Hearing Officer on the grounds that it was "irrational, arbitrary and capricious, and not based upon adequate or substantial evidence, in violation of public policy and not in accord with due process."

Noting that Education Law §3020-a(5) provides that an employee seeking to modify or vacate a hearing officer's determination is limited to the grounds set forth in CPLR 7511 or if it is clearly violative of a strong public policy, Judge DeStefano ruled that the Hearing Officer's determination did not violate a strong public policy and, further, was not totally or completely irrational, and did not exceed a specific enumerated limitation of the Hearing Officer's power. 

As to the “public policy exception, Judge DeStefano explained that although Lucia, and similarly situated teachers, have a constitutionally protected right to engage in union activity, the scope of the public policy exception is "extremely narrow … and the exercise of teachers' free assembly and speech rights are circumscribed to the extent that such exercise endangers the safety of children.”

As to Lucia’s argument that the Hearing Officer’s decision was totally irrational or that it otherwise exceeded his authority, Judge DeStefano said that “when reviewing compulsory arbitration in education proceedings, the court should accept the arbitrator's credibility determinations, even where "room for choice exits.” Here, said the court, there was testimony from which the Hearing Officer could reasonably conclude that “Lucia parked her car on the street as part of a demonstration calculated to disrupt the student "drop-off" area and which created a safety hazard to the children.” 

Judge DeStefano dismissed Lucia’s petition seeking an order vacating the determination of Hearing Officer.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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