HARRISBURG - The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has upheld a common pleas court's order that vacated a grievance arbitration award reinstating a teacher to his position following sexual harassment allegations.
Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer affirmed the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County decision to vacate a grievance arbitration award that granted Neshaminy School District teacher Jared Katz his job after a 20-day suspension regardless of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers union's attempt to defend him. The opinion was filed Sept. 18. The union had appealed the common pleas court's decision.
According to the opinion, the case stems from a collective bargaining agreement made between the district and union that noted no employee could be fired without just cause. However, issues arose when Katz was notified he was being discharged since he allegedly violated the sexual harassment policy.
After an arbitrator testified Katz committed sarcastic and sexually explicit comments toward a fellow teacher, the “arbitrator found that punishment was not merited and sustained the grievance,” according to the court's opinion. The award, which reinstated Katz back to work after his suspension without pay, specifically required him to complete sexual harassment classes.
But that was unacceptable to the district, which appealed the order to vacate the award with common pleas court.
Beginning the analysis, Jubelirer said it should be determined if indeed the award violated the sexual harassment policy.
According to the union, the 20-day suspension without pay and mandatory sexual harassment classes were adequate reprimand, but the district argued the award allowing Katz to teach again established a sexual harassment lenience.
Considering a 2009 decision in Coatesville Area Sch. Dist. v. Coatesville Area Teachers’ Ass’n, Jubelirer admitted that though the usual rule that arbitration awards should not be questioned stands, an exception in this case should be made.
“Without considering the effect on either co-teacher or the students, the award placed Katz back into the classroom despite arbitrator’s finding that Katz’s ongoing sexual harassment of co-teacher created a ‘hostile and offensive’ environment,” the judge wrote in the opinion.
The union disagreed, arguing as a former union advocate Katz was besieged with a more severe sentence of discipline and the “union cites the discipline meted out to other employees of district’s high school following Katz’s termination,” Jubelirer wrote.
Noting that the arbitrator did in fact find Katz created a hostile and offensive work environment, the judge deemed “how and why district investigated Katz’s behavior is largely irrelevant to our determination that the award here violates the well-established public policy against sexual harassment,” according to the opinion.
“For these reasons, the award violates the well-established and dominant public policy against sexual harassment and must not be enforced,” Jubelirer wrote.