In a recent matter heard in front of the Superior Court of Connecticut in New Haven, a tenured teacher unsuccessfully appealed a school board’s (Board) decision to terminate her employment. The Court determined that the Board’s decision was not arbitrary or capricious, but rather was based upon sufficient evidence.
The plaintiff was a music teacher for many years, but suffered from numerous physical and psychological medical problems that interfered with her performance abilities as an educator. As a result, “she was frequently absent from work not only on a short-term basis, but also for significantly longer periods as a result of several extended leaves of absence which she sought and the Board granted.” However, despite such numerous and extensive accommodations, the plaintiff’s problems only seemed to worsen. For example:
- She was often characterized as unfocused; disoriented; dazed; confused; exhausted; zoned out; overwhelmed; and “zombie-like.”
- She had “difficulty leading… [her students] in an organized and flowing manner,” and frequently delegated duties and responsibilities to her paraprofessional, who was not qualified to perform such tasks (i.e. grading, planning, etc.).
- On more than one occasion, she attempted to dismiss her classroom early due to confusion about schedules or her inability to control misbehaving students.
- A psychiatrist indicated that the plaintiff had deficits in memory and executive functioning, which would interfere with her ability to perform essential tasks for her position.
Due to the frequency of complaints from parents and students regarding the plaintiff’s conduct, the Board initiated procedure to terminate the plaintiff’s employment, pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes § 10-151(d). It ultimately cited two reasons for termination: 1) “disability, as shown by competent medical evidence” and 2) “[for] other due and sufficient cause.” The plaintiff appealed this decision to the Superior Court, arguing that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious” because there was no evidence to support the reasons given.
When a court considers a teacher’s appeal claiming unlawful termination, it applies the substantial evidence rule, a standard of review similar to that used in assessing jury verdicts in criminal trials. In essence, the court must decide whether the Board’s decision was supported by the evidence presented before it: “evidence is sufficient to sustain an agency finding if it affords a substantial basis of fact from which the fact in issue can be reasonably inferred.”
In this case, the Superior Court agreed with the Board: there was sufficient evidence to support both reasons given for termination. Simply based on the psychiatrist’s testimony regarding the plaintiff’s inability to perform at least four major responsibilities in her classroom, the termination was amply supported – however, the additional testimony only bolstered the Board’s decision. The court was not convinced that previous accommodations granted by the Board “compel[ed] the Board to offer additional and potentially limitless future accommodations,” for such concessions appeared ineffectual. Therefore, the Court dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal.
If you have any questions regarding education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya at the Maya Murphy, P.C. Westport location in Fairfield County at (203) 221-3100 or at JMaya@mayalaw.com.
Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.