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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Probationary Teacher Petitions Appellate Division To Vacate His U Ratings and Wins

Matter of Kolmel v City of New York
2011 NY Slip Op 07265
Decided on October 18, 2011
Appellate Division, First Department
Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.
This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

Decided on October 18, 2011 
Mazzarelli, J.P., Moskowitz, Acosta, Renwick, DeGrasse, JJ.

5724 114665/09 
[*1]In re William Kolmel Petitioner-Appellant, 
City of New York, et al., Respondents-Respondents.

Wolin & Wolin, Jericho (Alan E. Wolin of counsel), for 
Michael A. Cardozo, Corporation Counsel, New York (Edward 
F. X. Hart of counsel), for respondents. 

Order and judgment (one paper), Supreme Court, New York County (Carol R. Edmead, J.), entered June 10, 2010, which, insofar as appealed from as limited by the briefs, denied the petition seeking, inter alia, to annul the determination of respondent Department of Education (DOE) denying petitioner certification of completion of probation and terminating his employment as a probationary teacher, and denying his appeal of an unsatisfactory rating (U-rating) for the 2008-09 school year, and dismissed the proceeding brought pursuant to CPLR article 78, unanimously reversed, on the law, without costs, the petition granted to the extent of annulling the U-rating and the matter remanded to DOE for proper completion of the final review and recommendation.
The record shows that following three years of probationary service as a high school social studies teacher, petitioner had received satisfactory reviews and year-end reports. However, petitioner was informed he would not be recommended for tenure that year and agreed to enter into an agreement extending his probation through the 2008-09 school year. During this fourth year, petitioner received two satisfactory and two unsatisfactory classroom reports, two letters to the file for unbecoming conduct, and his principal gave him an unsatisfactory rating in each category on the year-end report (except voice and appearance, which were left blank) and an overall U-rating. As a result, it was recommended that petitioner be denied certification of completion of probation, which required termination of his service and precluded him from being hired by any other high school in the City.
"[A]...probationary employee may be discharged for any or no reason at all in the absence of a showing that his or her dismissal was in bad faith, for a constitutionally impermissible purpose or in violation of law" (Matter of Brown v City of New York, 280 AD2d 368, 370 [2001]; see Matter of Frasier Board of Educ. of City School Dist. of City of N.Y., 71 NY2d 763, 765 [1988]). "Evidence in the record supporting the conclusion that performance was unsatisfactory establishes that the discharge was made in good faith" (Matter of Johnson v Katz, 68 NY2d 649, 650 [1986]); the same standard applies when a teacher challenges a "U" rating (see Batyreva v New York City Dept. of Educ., 50 AD3d 283[2008]).
Here, the two negative classroom observations cited in the year-end report, which [*2]criticized petitioner's manner of asking questions, and the file letters, could rationally support a finding that petitioner had not developed into a proficient high school social studies teacher, following three years of suggestions and assistance (see e.g. Matter of Murnane v Department of Educ. of the City of N.Y., 82 AD3d 576 [2011]).
However, petitioner submitted evidence that the principal who made the determination to award the 2008-09 U-rating did not observe petitioner's teaching during either of his final two years at the school. This was in violation of DOE's rules concerning teacher rankings, which require at least one observation by the principal and pre-observation meetings with probationary teachers in danger of U-ratings. Furthermore, the year-end report, on its face, was completed by the principal in an arbitrary manner, including unsatisfactory rankings in every category, even where unsupported by any evidence or contradicted by evidence in the report itself. Petitioner's assertion that the principal stated at the administrative hearing that she did not rely on the file letters in making her tenure recommendation is not disputed by respondents. Petitioner also submitted a statement by a current DOE employee who formerly worked at the high school, that the principal pressured assistant principals to give negative U-ratings without observing the teachers. These deficiencies in the review process leading to the recommendation to deny tenure and terminate petitioner's employment are not merely technical, but undermined the integrity and fairness of the process (see Matter of Blaize v Klein, 68 AD3d 759 [2009]; Matter of Lehman v Board of Educ. of City School Dist. of City of N.Y., 82 AD2d 832, 834 [1981]; compare Matter of Davids v City of New York, 72 AD3d 557, 558 [2010] [technical failure to follow rules not bad faith where delays were undertaken in attempt to allow petitioner to bring his performance up to standards]).