The New York State Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the terminations of three teachers by the New York City Department of Education did not “shock the conscience” and should not have been set aside by a state appellate court in Manhattan.
In an unsigned opinion reversing the decisions of the Appellate Division, First Department, in three separate cases, the Court of Appeals restored rulings entered by hearing officers who concluded the firings were appropriate. The judges said the First Department justices improperly reweighed the evidence in each case and substituted its judgment for that of the hearing officers.
The Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling backed the Department of Education’s decisions to terminate the jobs of Terrell Williams, a gym teacher who the department said asked eighth-grade girls for the phone numbers of their older siblings; Almira Beatty, a special education teacher who the department said falsified time sheets for meeting with a student; and Ericka Bolt, a fifth-grade teacher who the department said encouraged her students to cheat on a statewide exam.
Court of Appeals Judge Jenny Rivera said in a concurring opinion that the First Department failed to apply well-settled case law in deciding the cases.
“There is no doctrinal complexity or novel issue presented in these appeals that cannot be resolved by reference to existing precedent,” Rivera wrote, saying the First Department partook in an “obvious misapplication of the law” and that the justices’ analyses in the cases were “so clearly at odds with uncontroversial, established legal standards.”
Rivera said her decision to write separately in the case was driven in part by the Department of Education’s argument that the Court of Appeals should clarify the scope of review in school discipline cases to prevent judicial overreach.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Melanie West represented the city in Bolt’s case and Assistant Corporation Counsel Kathy Chang Park appeared in Beatty’s and Williams’ cases.
“The unanimous and pointed decision of the Court of Appeals speaks volumes, reaffirming that independent labor arbitrators, and not judges, are best-positioned to decide whether teachers should be dismissed or otherwise disciplined for misconduct,” said Law Department spokesman Nicholas Paolucci in an email.
Bryan Glass of Glass Krakower represented Beatty and Williams and Richard Washington, a Manhattan solo attorney, appeared for Bolt.
Washington said in an interview that evidence against his client was insufficient and noted that, before the First Department ruled in the matter, a state Supreme Court justice had also found that firing Bolt was an excessive penalty.
“It’s unfortunate that those decisions were reversed and, while I respect the court’s decision, I believe Ms. Bolt was innocent and that the system failed her in this matter,” Washington said.
David Saxe, a retired First Department justice who was not involved in the three cases and who is now a partner at Morrison Cohen, said Rivera’s concurrence appears to recommend an “enhanced hurdle” for teachers to challenge an administrative decision for their termination.
“It was a shot across the bow for the standards to overcome discipline for teachers,” Saxe said.