Sunday, September 1, 2013

Acquitted of criminal charges, but just cause for dismissal

Grievant was employed as a middle school teacher. In addition to his teaching duties he performed  a number of advisory and extracurricular functions, including organizing student dances and serving as faculty advisor to the Junior National Honor Society. He also supervised the student run "School Store" and the sale of candy for fundraising purposes.

During his tenure grievant personally handled the cash receipts from these activities, keeping the cash in his classroom. A new principal modified the cash management procedures and prohibited the retention of cash by teachers. Notwithstanding that directive, grievant continued to manage cash as he had done before. Because of growing concerns that grievant was diverting school funds to his own use, the school superintendent requested that the local police conduct an investigation. As a result of the investigation, grievant was charged with several counts of larceny. Following a trial, a jury found grievant not guilty of the charges.

Within a week of the verdict, grievant was notified of the termination of his employment.The charges against him included insubordination, untruthfulness, incompetence and conduct unbecoming a teacher - more specifically misappropriation of funds. The teacher's union pursued the dispute to arbitration, and Arbitrator Philip Dunn has rejected the grievance and upheld the termination.

Arbitrator Dunn rejected the Union's claim that the acquittal "should have ended the inquiry" on the misappropriation of funds, noting:

 the standard of proof applied in those criminal proceedings, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, is a significantly higher burden of proof than the one which the employer must meet in order to establish just cause for termination of the grievant’s employment. The findings of not guilty in the criminal proceedings, then, do not foreclose the Employer from seeking to prove by clear and convincing evidence that a misappropriation of funds occurred, thus establishing just cause for summary termination for that offense

He also rejected the Union's argument that the termination of grievant's employment was inconsistent with the principle of progressive discipline. The Arbitrator acknowledged that the principal:

     failed to apply lower levels of progressive discipline that might well have helped [grievant] appreciate the absolute necessity of conforming his behavior to the policies she had established. One has to wonder if Donais was disinclined to impose any discipline upon the grievant because he had in August been generous in helping her get prepared for her first year as principal, and/or because of her newness in the role of principal. In any case, she did not take any disciplinary action on any grounds against the grievant until January 2011, when matters had escalated especially regarding fiscal matters.
     To then cite this collection of relatively minor offenses which occurred months prior the
grievant’s placement on administrative leave, as part of the rationale for summary termination,
looks more like improper, “cumulative” discipline rather than the progressive discipline which is
an integral part of the just cause standard. It is inconsistent with the concept of just cause to
knowingly allow a bunch of lesser offenses over time to go undisciplined at a lower level, but
then to add them all up and assert that as accumulated, they justify summary termination.

Nevertheless, he concluded

in the case of egregious insubordination and misappropriation of student activity funds as occurred here, after and notwithstanding the clear and forceful directives from Assistant Superintendent Kosmes; and then followed by dishonesty as the school administration tried to learn what had in fact transpired; the Employer was justified in moving directly to termination of employment, without any progressive discipline. Moreover, given these facts, the best interests of the pupils in the school district were properly served by the summary termination of grievant’s employment, notwithstanding his many years of service to the Haverhill Public Schools.

Arbitrator Dunn's award in Haverhill Education Association and Haverhill School Committee can be found here.

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