Friday, December 2, 2011

Massachusetts court upholds award denying teacher’s claim

                The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has upheld an award denying the claim of a teacher that his employment was terminated without the statutorily required just cause. Atwater v. Commissioner of Education. The teacher had been dismissed for conduct he allegedly engaged in with a student.
                The court initially rejected the claim that the statute authorizing the arbitration (G.L. c71, Sec. 42) was unconstitutional as an improper delegation of judicial and government power to an individual (the arbitrator). The court concluded that:

the statute's provision authorizing arbitration of a principal or superintendent's dismissal decision does not interfere with core judicial functions. The provision of professional teacher status, together with a limitation of grounds for dismissal, and provision of authority on principals and superintendents to render dismissal decisions, as well as arbitral review of such decisions, are, as we previously stated, matters of legislative judgment. These aspects of the statute do not implicate or interfere with core judicial functions. Further, the statute's provision of judicial review of the arbitrator's decision enables a judicial function, albeit a limited one.                       

The court also rejected a challenge to the award based upon the arbitrator’s failure to recuse herself. During the arbitration, the school district proposed a settlement which included an offer to allow the teacher and his counsel to have an ex parte meeting with the arbitrator regarding her impression of the case after the close of the teacher’s testimony. The parties disagreed on whether the arbitrator offered to recuse herself if the case didn’t settle.
 During the meeting the Arbitrator observed that, based upon what she had heard so far, she would uphold the district’s action, but that more evidence might cause her to change her mind.
The case didn’t settle, and the arbitrator declined to recuse herself from hearing the remainder of the case. She thereafter issued an award upholding the termination.
The teacher sought to vacate the award “because the arbitrator engaged in misconduct and exhibited bias, prejudicing [teacher] by her attempt to mediate a settlement at the district's request, and by her refusal to recuse herself from conducting the arbitration after such mediation was unsuccessful.”
The court found no inappropriate action on the part of the arbitrator. It noted she did not receive any information ex parte from the teacher or his attorneys during the meeting, nor did she provide the district any information from the meeting. The court concluded that this conduct did not amount to mediation and did not support a claim of bias.  Accordingly it upheld the award.

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