Decision No. 13,021
Appeal of JAY A. DUBNER from a determination rendered by a hearing panel convened pursuant to Education Law '3020-a concerning charges brought against him by the Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York.
Decision No. 13,021
(October 15, 1993)
Neal Howard Rosenberg, Esq., attorney for petitioner
Lawrence E. Becker, Esq., attorney for respondent, Katie R. Raab, Esq., of counsel
SOBOL, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the determination of a hearing panel convened pursuant to Education Law '3020-a finding him guilty of conduct unbecoming a teacher and prejudicial to the good order, efficiency and discipline of the service, and authorizing termination from his position. The appeal must be sustained to the extent indicated.
Petitioner is a tenured teacher of special education. He has been employed by respondent City School District of the City of New York ("respondent") for nearly 15 years and, at the time of the events giving rise to this appeal, was serving in a non-classroom position in Community School District No. 17.
On May 8, 1989, petitioner was arrested, and by indictment filed May 25, 1989 in Supreme Court, Kings County, was charged with multiple felony counts of sale and possession of controlled substances. Petitioner was reassigned to a position with the Central Based Support Team (CBST).
On June 19, 1990, petitioner pled guilty in Supreme Court to criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree, a class B felony. On July 20, 1990, he was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of 2 to 6 years in prison.
On November 30, 1990, the Chancellor submitted a charge to the board of education reciting the above conviction, alleging that it constituted conduct unbecoming a teacher and conduct prejudicial to the good order, efficiency, and discipline of the service, and that it constituted substantial cause rendering petitioner unfit to continue as an employee. On December 5, 1990, the board found probable cause for such charge.
A hearing panel convened on May 24, 1991, pursuant to Education Law '3020-a, and heard testimony for a total of 8 days, concluding on February 27, 1992. The panel produced a record of approximately 800 pages of testimony. On April 1, 1992, the panel found petitioner guilty of the charge and authorized his dismissal, by a vote of 2-1. Petitioner was dismissed by formal action of the board of education on May 20, 1992.
This appeal was commenced on June 18, 1992, by service of the petition upon respondent board of education, and petitioner requested a stay of his dismissal. That stay was denied on June 30, 1992.
There can be little doubt as to the seriousness of the underlying offense. The superseding indictment charges petitioner with criminal possession and sale of cocaine on two separate occasions (both sales would be class A-II felonies punishable by 8 1/3 years to life in prison) and criminal possession of cocaine on a third occasion. Petitioner pled guilty to a single count of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree, a class B felony, and received a sentence of 2 to 6 years in prison.
Petitioner contends that he was addicted to cocaine prior to his arrest, that his crime was directly related to his addiction and that he entered into a program of treatment. He claims that his treatment was successful, he has been successfully rehabilitated and has indeed performed his assigned work duties with respondent following his rehabilitation. He further claims that his dismissal violates '504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Petitioner asks that I reverse the hearing panel's finding as to guilt, and that I grant such other relief as may be proper under the circumstances.
Respondent contends that the disciplinary proceeding was in all respects correctly conducted and the penalty of termination of services is proper. Respondent claims that because of substantial adverse publicity at the time of petitioner's arrest and sentencing, it would be impossible for petitioner to discharge the duties of a teacher. Respondent further claims that the record does not establish that petitioner was addicted prior to his arrest, nor that his condition was in any way caused by addiction. Respondent further contends that the Rehabilitation Act is not applicable to the circumstances of this case.
Petitioner asks that I reverse the hearing panel's finding as to guilt. I decline to do so. There is no question that petitioner is guilty of the underlying criminal charge. The record contains both the minutes of petitioner's plea on June 19, 1990, to a class B felony and a certificate of disposition duly executed by the Supreme Court Clerk. Conviction of this felony clearly constitutes conduct unbecoming a teacher and conduct prejudicial to the good order, efficiency, and discipline of the service. Accordingly, there is no basis for reversing the panel's determination as to guilt.
With respect to the issue of penalty, Appeal of Board of Education of Community School District 19 (32 Ed Dept Rep 354), decided while this appeal was pending, is on point. In that case, I set forth a number of factors which must be considered when a respondent claims that his criminal offense was a result of an alcohol or drug-related problem. The factors are: (1) whether or not the drug-related arrest and conviction that formed the basis of the charges were the manifestation of respondent's substance abuse problem; (2) whether or not respondent has acknowledged his problem; (3) whether or not respondent has successfully undergone treatment for his problem; and (4) whether or not respondent demonstrates a capacity to carry out his duties due to his progress in the treatment program (32 Ed Dept Rep 354 at p. 357).
With respect to the first question, whether or not petitioner was addicted to drugs prior to his arrest, the record contains the testimony of fourteen persons, including petitioner. The critical time period, of course, is the time immediately prior to the arrest. With respect to that time period, only petitioner testified directly, and respondent produced no rebuttal of his claim that he was addicted then. Although petitioner arguably failed to produce certain relevant witnesses who could have bolstered his testimony, there is some question whether those witnesses were within his control, and I, therefore, decline to draw any unfavorable inference because of their failure to testify. Accordingly, there is sufficient evidence in the record to convince me that petitioner had a substance abuse problem prior to his arrest.
With respect to the second factor discussed in Community School District 19, the record offers sufficient evidence that petitioner acknowledged his drug addiction. On May 31, 1989 following his May 8, 1989, arrest, petitioner voluntarily entered a six-week inpatient drug treatment program at Gracie Square Hospital. Although petitioner admits initially denying he had a substance abuse problem, he later fully acknowledged and accepted his condition. This was validated by the testimony of a physician and a licensed drug counselor. Both testified that such denial is typical of patients new to recovery. According to these professionals, recovering addicts have a tendency to deny the existence of a substance abuse problem during the early stages of recovery in an attempt to minimize the severity of their condition. Once petitioner accepted his condition, he began to participate actively in treatment.
Petitioner makes the claim that his treatment has been successful, the third factor set forth in Community School District 19. That treatment consisted of not only a six-week inpatient drug treatment program, but participation for one year in an after-care program at the same hospital as an outpatient. During his incarceration, which lasted approximately 3 1/2 months, petitioner was involved in the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment (ASAT) program sponsored by the New York State Department of Corrections, which consisted of group therapy and participation in Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Petitioner maintains that he attends Cocaine and Narcotics Anonymous meetings three or four times per week. As of January 1992, petitioner was enrolled in courses to become a drug and alcohol substance abuse counselor to assist other addicts in recovery. Based upon these facts, petitioner has demonstrated an earnest desire to be rehabilitated.
With respect to the question of petitioner's present capacity to carry out his duties, the record contains testimony from four of petitioner's current colleagues and supervisors in the administrative offices of the board of education. Witnesses referred to petitioner as an excellent employee. He was further described as very good at his job and on task prior to and following his May 8, 1989 arrest. Additional testimony revealed that petitioner performed duties as required, was very organized, focused, rarely absent and arrived for work on time. According to a supervisor, prior to petitioner's arrest, petitioner trained an assistant and overall, left the office in a better condition than he found it.
Following his May 1989 arrest and subsequent job reassignment in September 1989, petitioner testified he was only absent once. Petitioner further reveals that he worked when it was not required, often stayed late and worked on holidays and during summer vacations. At his position with the CBST, petitioner carried a case load approximately double that of his co-workers and also was assigned to special projects.
The primary purpose of a disciplinary hearing is not punitive, but rather, to determine a teacher's fitness to teach and carry out professional responsibilities (Matter of Bott v. Bd of Educ., 41 NY2d 265). After careful review of the lengthy testimony and numerous exhibits, I am unable to conclude that petitioner is unfit to teach. Moreover, petitioner has confronted his drug addiction and has, thus far, demonstrated success in overcoming it. Finally, there is no basis to conclude that the underlying conduct that resulted in the charge will recur.
With respect to the nature of the penalty imposed, it is well settled that the Commissioner may substitute his judgment for that of a hearing panel regarding the penalty imposed (Shurgin v. Ambach, 83 AD2d 665, 442 NYS2d 212). This requires an assessment of the measure of discipline and whether it is proportionate to the offense (Matter of Mockler v. Ambach, 79 AD2d 745, 434 NYS2d 809, lv to app den 53 NY2d 603, 439 NYS2d 1026; Matter of Kloepfer v. Commissioner, et al., 82 AD2d 665, affd 56 NY2d 700; Shurgin v. Ambach, supra). It is within the Commissioner's authority to reduce a penalty (Matter of Board of Education of the Center Moriches UFSD, 22 Ed Dept Rep 113). In that case, the Commissioner determined that despite a panel's finding of incompetence, termination was not necessary as recommended by the hearing panel. In Appeal of the Board of Education of the Malverne UFSD (29 Ed Dept Rep 363, affd sub nom Matter of Malverne UFSD v. Sobol, 181 AD2d 371), I substituted my judgment for that of the panel, reducing the penalty imposed.
In the case before me, the panel has recommended that petitioner be terminated. However, the record supports the conclusion that petitioner suffered from drug addiction prior to his arrest, acknowledged his problem, sought treatment that has been successful and is capable of carrying out his professional responsibilities. Termination of petitioner's services under these circumstances would be unduly harsh.
I find that a penalty of two years' suspension without pay is more appropriate than termination and will be sufficient to impress upon petitioner the seriousness of his actions and to serve as a deterrent to any future similar actions.
Finally, petitioner's reliance on '504 of the Rehabilitation Act (20 U.S.C. '794) is misplaced. Assuming without deciding that petitioner qualifies as an "individual with a disability" as defined by 20 U.S.C. '706(8), and that '794 is otherwise applicable, it is clear that the disciplinary action taken here by respondent was not taken "solely by reason of his or her disability." Disciplinary action was taken as a result of petitioner's commission of a class B felony. Where an employee is disciplined for criminal activity, the Rehabilitation Act has no application (Richardson v. United States Postal Service, 613 F. Supp. 1213; Franklin v. United States Postal Service, 687 F. Supp. 1214). Where a teacher commits a crime, one may also question whether that teacher is an "otherwise qualified individual" for purposes of 20 U.S.C. '794, but such speculation is unnecessary given the circumstances of the case.
In view of this disposition, it is unnecessary to consider or discuss the other contentions of the parties.
THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED TO THE EXTENT INDICATED.
IT IS ORDERED that petitioner be suspended without pay for a period of two (2) years, commencing May 20, 1992, and terminating May 19, 1994.
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