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August 17, 2020

A disciplinary penalty should not be set aside by a court where it is not irrational and does not shock the conscience


The appointing authority [School District] filed disciplinary charges alleging various instances of misconduct against a tenured teacher [Plaintiff] pursuant to Education Law §3020-a. The hearing officer sustained certain specifications of misconduct, finding that the Plaintiff was guilty of "neglect of duty, conduct unbecoming of a professional, and insubordination and imposed termination of Petitioner's employment as the penalty.

Plaintiff filed an appeal pursuant to CPLR Article 75 challenging the disciplinary action, seeking a court order vacating the determination of the hearing officer. Supreme Court vacated the determination of the hearing officer to the extent of the penalty imposed, termination, and remitted the matter back to the hearing officer for a new penalty determination.  

The School Districtappealed the Supreme Court's ruling whereupon the Appellate Division reinstated and confirmed the arbitration award and then remitted the matter to the Supreme Court "for the entry of an appropriate judgment."

The Appellate Division explained that Education Law §3020(1)* controls  in the event the appointing authority initiates a disciplinary action against a tenured teacher and provides that "[n]o person enjoying the benefits of tenure shall be disciplined or removed during a term of employment except for just cause" and in accordance with statutory procedures.

Further, opined the Appellate Division, "A court may set aside an administrative [disciplinary] penalty only if it is so disproportionate to the offense as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness" and the fact that "reasonable minds might disagree over what the proper penalty should have been does not provide a basis for ... refashioning the penalty." In the words of the court, "A [disciplinary] penalty should not be set aside where it is not irrational and does not shock the conscience."

Finding that "in light of all of the circumstances of this case, the penalty of termination is not irrational and does not shock the conscience," the Appellate Division concluded that Supreme Court should not have granted that branch of the Plaintiff's petition seeking to vacate the penalty of termination of the Plaintiff's employment as a tenured teacher.

* Citing Matter of Watkins v Board of Educ. of Port Jefferson Union Free School Dist., 26 AD3d 336, the Appellate Division noted that §3020 is the "exclusive method of disciplining a tenured teacher in New York State."

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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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 NYPPL and, or, its staff and contributors 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.
New York Public Personnel Law. Email: publications@nycap.rr.com