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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Imposing a lesser disciplinary penalty than the one recommended by the disciplinary hearing officer

Imposing a lesser disciplinary penalty than the one recommended by the disciplinary hearing officer
2017 NY Slip Op 01628, Appellate Division, First Department

The penalty of termination of employment was imposed by a disciplinary hearing officer upon the petitioner in the Article 78 action [Petitioner], a special education home instruction teacher. The hearing officer found that Petitioner had submitted time sheets falsely stating that she had provided instruction to a disabled student and inaccurately indicated that she had reported to certain New York City Department of Education [DOE] schools and libraries over the two-month period in the aftermath of the impact of Hurricane Sandy on New York City and its surrounding area.

There was no question that the hearing officers findings were correct; Petitioner was guilty of all charges and specifications. Petitioner, however, appealed, seeking a court order not to setting aside the findings of misconduct but only an order modifying the penalty imposed on her. Further, Petitioner had acknowledged her error in judgment and pledged to change her practices and never to repeat the error.

Notwithstanding Petitioner's guilt of the charges misconduct filed against her, the Appellate Division ruled that under the circumstances the penalty of termination shocked its sense of fairness and applied the so-called Pell Doctrine [see Matter of Pell v Board of Educ., 34 NY2d 222, 233.

The Appellate Division explained that here there were extraordinary conditions to consider, as well as certain attempts at mitigation undertaken by Petitioner, including the following:

1. Petitioner and her student had been displaced from their homes as a result of Hurricane Sandy and Petitioner, although she had contacted her student's mother, did not provide any educational services to her student.

2. The Department of Education had not provided teachers such as Petitioner with any guidance or information as to the instruction of students displaced by Hurricane Sandy, other than that displaced students would not be penalized.

3. Petitioner had filled out the time sheets in question in advance of the dates to which those time sheets pertained and although she had  no provided instruction to the disabled student on the days indicated in those time sheets, she had instructed other students on each of the dates in question and 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 extraordinary benefit from her actions.

4. Prior to Hurricane Sandy Petitioner had an unblemished record over a 17-year period as a special education home instruction teacher and the disabled student's mother had  testified at the disciplinary hearing that Petitioner was a good teacher who worked well with her son and had served his needs more successfully than had other teachers.

The Appellate Division characterized Petitioner's misconduct as "more a matter of lax bookkeeping than implementation of any venal scheme" and no intent to defraud or harm to the public. and any harm to DOE was mitigated. It then explained that "a [disciplinary] 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 to be considered, said the court, "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."

Noting that at the hearing Petitioner admitted guilt and acknowledges that her misconduct warrants punishment since the disabled student was deprived of the services of a teacher for two months, the Appellate Division,  . Petitioner does 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. She has acknowledged her error in judgment and has pledged to change her practices and never to repeat the error.

Citing Bolt v New York City Dept. of Education, 145 AD3d 450, the Appellate Division said that "There is no evidence that '[Petitioner] could not remedy her behavior'" and that it believed that the penalty of termination, "is disproportionate to the level of [Petitioner's] misconduct and exceeds the standards that society requires to be applied to this offense."

The decision is posted on the Internet at:


A Reasonable Disciplinary Penalty Under the Circumstances - The text of this publication focuses on determining an appropriate disciplinary penalty to be imposed on an employee in the public service in instances where the employee has been found guilty of misconduct or incompetence. Now available in two formats - as a large, paperback print edition, and as an e-book. For more information click on http://booklocker.com/books/7401.html


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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