Tenured public school teachers have certain due process rights in the workplace. A teacher may not be fired unless the local board of education can show there was “just cause.” The teacher also has the right to an administrative review–commonly known as a 3020A hearing–at which he or she can confront the evidence against him or her and present a defense.
Federal Judge Rejects Fired Math Teacher's Lawsuit
New York State law treats 3020A hearings as quasi-judicial proceedings. This means that any findings of fact rendered by the hearing officer are legally binding, provided the parties had a “full and fair opportunity to litigate” the matter. This deference to 3020A findings can also affect an employee's rights to seek relief in federal court.
For example, a federal judge recently dismissed a long-running employment discrimination lawsuit brought against the City of Yonkers Board of Education. The plaintiff, a former mathematics teacher for the Yonkers schools, alleged that she was fired in “retaliation” for complaining about years of sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of a fellow math teacher. In this case, the retaliation purportedly took the form of her termination.
Here is what happened. According to the plaintiff, the sexual harassment occurred between 2006 and 2009. She said she informed the school district as soon as the conduct began, although the Board of Education denied it was ever notified. By the defense's account, the plaintiff was a problematic teacher who threatened to “smack” a student in 2012. In response to this incident, the district transferred the plaintiff to another school, ostensibly out of concern for “safety of he students.”
The plaintiff refused to accept the transfer. Through her union, she pursued a grievance under a collective bargaining agreement with the district. The union eventually withdrew the grievance, but the plaintiff refused to report for reassignment. At this point, the district said, it had no choice but to pursue disciplinary charges at a 3020A hearing, where the plaintiff chose to represent herself without counsel.
The hearing officer ultimately ruled in favor of the district, finding the plaintiff liable for “insubordination and conduct unbecoming a teacher,” and determining termination was the “appropriate remedy.”
The plaintiff subsequently sued the Board of Education and several individual defendants, presenting a number of employment discrimination claims. In 2016, a federal court dismissed most of the claims except for one alleging retaliation. In an opinion issued on August 21, 2018, the judge dismissed the retaliation charge.
As an initial matter, the judge said he was bound to accept the factual findings of the 3020A hearing officer with respect to the circumstances surrounding the defendant's transfer. This helped defeat the plaintiff's retaliation case. The judge explained that school district had a “legitimate non-retaliatory reason” for firing the plaintiff. Legally, the plaintiff had to show this reason was nothing more than a pretext for discriminatory behavior, which she failed to do, thereby requiring dismissal of her lawsuit.
Taking 3020A Hearings Seriously
You should never assume that a 3020A hearing is not a “real” trial and therefore something you can just ignore. If you are facing disciplinary charges, you need to act fast to preserve your legal rights. Contact the experienced New York employment attorneys at the Law Offices of White, Nisar & Hilferty, LLP, today.