As a Long Island school district tries to recoup the salary and benefits it paid to a teacher convicted of sex abuse, a judge is ordering the parties into arbitration.
In the wake of tenured elementary music teacher John Benstock’s 2013 guilty plea, Locust Valley Central School District sought the return of his total compensation—roughly $1 million dollars over 13 years—owing to his purported breaches of fiduciary duty and duty of loyalty to the district by committing the crimes.
But the teachers association moved to compel arbitration, saying the attempted clawback ran afoul of its collective bargaining agreement with the district, even though Benstock was no longer an association member.
In a July 1 ruling, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Feinman (See Profile) granted the request for arbitration, which is non-binding, reversing a preliminary injunction.
The association showed there was a “reasonable relationship between the subject matter of the dispute and the general subject matter of the [agreement]” to justify arbitration, Feinman said in Locust Valley Central School District v. Benstock, 13085/13.
Benstock was employed at the school district from 2000 to 2013, when he resigned and pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree sexual abuse and 10 counts of endangering the welfare of a child.
Authorities say he had victimized 14 children between 2000 and 2011, the year he was indicted and ordered by the district to stay home with pay. According to Newsday, he made the victims play games in which the children touched him through his clothes. The incidents occurred inside district schools and at the children’s homes during private lessons.
Benstock, 50, avoided jail time with his 2013 plea, but received six years probation and has been designated as a level one sex offender.
In the wake of the criminal proceedings, the district sued Benstock under the state’s faithless servant doctrine, a common law doctrine that lets employers seek the compensation it paid to an employee during the individual’s period of disloyalty.
The district claimed that period ran from 2000 to 2013, and pressed for Benstock to pay for its investigation into the misconduct leading up to the criminal case.
The teachers association filed a grievance with the district complaining about the lawsuit against Benstock. The association also pressed for arbitration, which the district moved to block.
Acting Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Denise Sher issued a preliminary injunction that stayed proceedings before the American Arbitration Association.
The district then sought a permanent injunction against arbitration, insisting its case against Benstock was a private action that fell outside the scope of the collective bargaining agreement. It claimed neither Benstock nor the association had the standing to assert the agreement took precedence because Benstock stopped being an association member when he resigned.
The teachers association differed, saying the forfeiture attempt fell squarely under the agreement’s terms.
In his decision, Feinman quoted the agreement, which said it was meant to be “in full settlement of all issues respecting salaries, hours and other terms and condition of employment, and all other matters which are the subject of professional negotiations.”
The judge said there was a reasonable connection between the district’s fight for Benstock’s compensation and the subject matter of the agreement. Feinman also said “any ambiguity as to whether the arbitration clause covers a particular dispute must be resolved in favor of arbitration.”
Moreover, the judge pointed to case law holding that matters such as a district’s “relationship to retired or discharged employees, and the question of whether such former employees are covered by the grievance procedure, are for the arbitrator to decide.”
Howard Miller, a partner at Bond Schoeneck & King in Garden City, represented the school district. He declined to comment.
Benstock is represented by Stuart Lichten of Lichten & Bright in Manhattan.
The teachers association is represented by Catherine Battle of the New York State United Teachers Office of General Counsel.
A New York State United Teachers spokesman called Feinman’s ruling “a good decision,” and said the state union got involved in the case “to defend the broader concept that penalties for teacher misconduct are governed by statute and/or collective bargaining agreements.”