Can I Sue Someone Who Testifies Against Me at an Employment Arbitration Hearing?

Many New York civil servants have certain statutory rights in the workplace. For example, a tenured schoolteacher has the right to contest a disciplinary action–including termination of employment–at a special proceeding known as a Section 3020-a hearing. But employees must also understand that such hearings carry certain legal risks and limitations.

Judge Rules Fired Teacher's Ex-Therapist Entitled to “Absolute” Immunity

For example, a federal judge in upstate New York recently dismissed a claim raised by a fired schoolteacher against a witness who testified at his Section 3020-a hearing. The judge reaffirmed a longstanding legal principle that witnesses who testify in official proceedings–including binding arbitration–are immune from subsequent lawsuits arising from that testimony.

The plaintiff in this case worked for approximately 17 years as a middle school teacher. About seven years before his termination, the plaintiff participated in a therapy program offered by the school district to help him deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and related psychological problems. An outside contractor provided the therapy program, but the plaintiff's therapist assured him anything he said would remain confidential.

Sometime later, a new principal took over at the plaintiff's school. The plaintiff alleged this new principal was determined to fire him. In fact, the principal ultimately did recommend the plaintiff's termination on the grounds of “conduct unbecoming a teacher, immoral character, insubordination and neglect of duty.”

The plaintiff subsequently requested a Section 3020-a hearing. During this hearing, the plaintiff's former therapist testified. According to court records, the therapist said he met with the plaintiff on several occasions. He also met with other members of the school's staff, who said they “felt intimidated” and “threatened” by the plaintiff's presence. The therapist did not, however, disclose any specific communications between himself and the plaintiff.

The hearing arbitrator ruled in favor of the school district and upheld the plaintiff's termination. The plaintiff then filed a federal lawsuit alleging, among other things, disability discrimination on the part of the school district and “intentional infliction of emotional distress” against the therapist and the outside contractor that employed him.

The judge overseeing the litigation dismissed the therapist and his employer as defendants. The judge explained that under New York law, a witness who testifies in a judicial proceeding is “absolutely privileged” from civil liability for any statements they make that are “material and pertinent to the questions involved.” Section 3020-a hearings qualify as “quasi-judicial” proceedings. Therefore the plaintiff cannot maintain an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim arising from the therapist's testimony.

Have You Been Illegally Fired? Call Us Today

Losing a job is a traumatic experience. When you know the termination was unfair or possibly illegal, you understandably want to hold the responsible parties accountable. The first thing you need to do is contact a qualified New York employment attorney at (646) 760-6493. The law in this area is quite complicated, especially when it involves public employees, and you need to work with someone who can help you navigate the system. Call White, Nisar & Hilferty, LLP, today if you have been the victim of illegal job discrimination and require an attorney.