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Monday, March 13, 2017

Appellate Division finds penalty of dismissal imposed on educator shocking to its sense of fairness


Appellate Division finds penalty of dismissal imposed on educator shocking to its sense of fairness
Matter of Beatty v City of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op 01628, Appellate Division, First Department

The penalty of termination of employment was imposed upon Amira Beatty, a special education home instruction teacher having a 17-year unblemished record, by the New York City Department of Education [DOE] based upon the hearing officer's finding that she had submitted time sheets falsely stating that she had provided instruction to a disabled student and inaccurately indicating that she had reported to certain DOE schools and libraries over a two-month period.

Citing Pell v Board of Educ. of Union Free School Dist. No. 1 of Towns of Scarsdale & Mamaroneck, Westchester County, 34 NY2d 222, the Appellate Division ruled that "Notwithstanding Beatty's misconduct, under the circumstances presented here, the penalty of termination shocks our sense of fairness."

The court, quoting from Bolt v NYC Department of Education, 145 AD3d 450, explained that "[A] result is shocking to one's sense of fairness if the sanction imposed is so grave in its impact on the individual subjected to it that it is disproportionate to the misconduct, incompetence, failure or turpitude of the individual, or to the harm or risk of harm to the agency or institution, or to the public generally visited or threatened by the derelictions of the individuals. Additional factors would be the prospect of deterrence of the individual or of others in like situations, and therefore a reasonable prospect of recurrence of derelictions by the individual or persons similarly employed. There is also the element that the sanctions reflect the standards of society to be applied to the offense involved."

At the time of the incident in question, said the court, Beatty was confronted with an extraordinary situation -- "Superstorm Sandy" impact on the City had displaced both Beatty and her student from their respective homes and had adversely affected  transportation in the City.

The genesis of this disciplinary action: Beatty had filled out the time sheets in question in advance of the dates to which those time sheets pertained. She did not, in fact, proceed to provide instruction to the disabled student on the days set forth in those time sheets in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and submitted the time sheets without correction on a subsequent date. However, the Appellate Division noted that because she had instructed other students on each of the dates in question, she would have received the same salary regardless of how many students she had instructed or how many hours she had spent with them, and thus derived no benefit from her misstatements on the time sheets.

The court characterized Beatty's misconduct as "more a matter of lax bookkeeping than implementation of any venal scheme" as there was no intent to defraud or theft of services on her part, and the harm to the public and to the DOE was mitigated.

At the hearing, Beatty admitted that she was guilty of submitting reports stating that she had provided instruction to the disabled student on certain dates when she had not done so and that she had reported to various schools and libraries on certain dates when she had not done so. Acknowledging that her misconduct warrants punishment as the disabled student was deprived of the services of a teacher for two months, Beatty did not seek to set aside the findings of misconduct contained in the hearing officer's opinion, but only to modify the penalty imposed on her.

Noting that Beatty had acknowledged her error in judgment and has pledged to change her practices and never to repeat the error, the Appellate Division found no evidence that "[Beatty] could not remedy her behavior." Accordingly, the court found that the penalty of termination was disproportionate to the level of Beatty's misconduct and exceeds the standards that society requires to be applied to this offense.

The court concluded that rather than constituting a case of extended, intentional and self-serving misconduct or repeated and continuous neglect of duty, "this was an isolated instance of neglect occurring under circumstances of extraordinary personal hardship and involving a teacher who had an otherwise unblemished and longstanding record." "Had Superstorm Sandy not upended her life," said the court, "there is no indication that [Beatty's] wrongdoing would have occurred. As it is highly unlikely that the extraordinary situation presented in this case will recur, the factors of general and specific deterrence do not come into play."

[N.B. Presiding Judge Friedman and Judge Andrias  dissented in a memorandum by Judge Andrias.]

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2017/2017_01628.htm

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