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Pleasant Valley School District v. Robert D. Schaeffer

December 1, 2011

PLEASANT VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT
v.
ROBERT D. SCHAEFFER, APPELLANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mary Hannah Leavitt, Judge

Argued: May 11, 2011

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge HONORABLE RENEE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE LEAVITT

Robert D. Schaeffer appeals, with permission, an interlocutory order of the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County (trial court). The litigation concerns Pleasant Valley School District's challenge to a grievance arbitration award ordering the District to reinstate Schaeffer to his teaching position. The trial court sustained the District's appeal and ordered a remand for additional hearings by the arbitrator to determine whether Schaeffer's reinstatement would violate public policy. The critical question before us is whether a reviewing court is permitted to use public policy concerns to revise the issue submitted by the parties for arbitration. Concluding that it cannot, we reverse.

The facts as found by the arbitrator follow. Schaeffer was a tenured teacher employed by the Lehighton School District for many years. In December 2004, he left Lehighton to begin a job with the Pleasant Valley School District as a special education teacher. In November 2005, Schaeffer was arrested for engaging in "misconduct" with a student during his employment at Lehighton. Arbitrator's Opinion and Award at 3 (Award at ___). The Award did not provide any specifics about the charges. In response, Pleasant Valley School District suspended Schaeffer indefinitely until exonerated of all criminal charges.

After a preliminary hearing in December 2005, the charges against Schaeffer were bound over for trial. In May 2006, Schaeffer entered the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program in lieu of entering a plea. On June 7, 2007, Schaeffer completed the ARD program; all charges against him were dismissed; and his criminal record was expunged. On June 22, 2007, Schaeffer informed the School District in writing of these facts and requested immediate reinstatement. On July 3, 2007, the School District responded, in writing, that the Pennsylvania Department of Education (Department) had initiated its own investigation into the matter that led to Schaeffer's arrest. Because the outcome of the Department's investigation could affect Schaeffer's teaching certificate, the School District informed Schaeffer that his reinstatement would not take place until the Department's investigation was complete.

At the conclusion of the Department's investigation, Schaeffer agreed to a retroactive suspension of his Pennsylvania teaching certificate, from November 21, 2005, to June 30, 2008. However, as late as October 2008, the Department's website continued to state that Schaeffer's teaching certificate was suspended and that "allegations of inappropriate behavior with students" had been lodged against him. Award at 5. The website was corrected in December 2008.

On November 24, 2008, Schaeffer wrote to the School District. He explained that his teaching certificate had been reinstated and, again, requested reinstatement. On December 5, 2008, the School District's solicitor replied that Schaeffer would not be reinstated for the reason that he had abandoned his teaching position. The solicitor noted that Schaeffer never replied to the district's letter of July 3, 2007. Further, Schaeffer did not request reinstatement for almost five months after he had his certificate reinstated on July 1, 2008. Reproduced Record at 96a-97a (R.R. ___).

The Pleasant Valley Education Association filed a grievance on Schaeffer's behalf, and the matter proceeded to grievance arbitration. In the grievance, the Association asserted that the School District had failed to provide Schaeffer a due process hearing as required by the collective bargaining agreement and the Public School Code of 1949.*fn1 Both guarantee a tenured teacher notice of the specific charges against him and a full evidentiary hearing before the teacher can be dismissed.*fn2 The School District responded that a hearing was not required because it did not prevent Schaeffer from returning to work; rather, he abandoned his position.

The Association and the School District agreed to the following statement of the issues to be decided by the arbitrator:

Did the Pleasant Valley School District [b]reach the collective bargaining agreement and/or the Pennsylvania School Code by refusing to allow the grievant, Robert Schaeffer to return to work on November 24, 2008? If so, what shall the remedy be? Alternatively, did Robert Schaeffer "abandon" his employment as that term is defined under the law? If not, what shall the remedy be?

Award at 6.

After a hearing, the arbitrator sustained the grievance. He found, as fact, that Schaeffer did not abandon his employment and, therefore, the School District violated the collective bargaining agreement by denying him a hearing. The arbitrator ordered the School District to reinstate Schaeffer to his teaching position with back pay and benefit credits retroactive to November 24, 2008. The School District appealed, arguing: (1) that the arbitrator's award was not rationally derived from the collective bargaining agreement; and (2) that the arbitrator's award violated public policy because a teacher disciplined for inappropriate behavior should not be placed back into the classroom. The trial court sustained the School District's appeal on the basis of the public policy exception and remanded the matter to the arbitrator for additional fact-finding.

In reviewing the award, the trial court applied the deferential "essence test." It provides that an arbitration award will be upheld if: (1) the issue as properly defined is within the terms of the collective bargaining agreement; and (2) the arbitrator's award can be rationally derived from the collective bargaining agreement. State System of Higher Education (Cheyney University) v. State College University Professional Association (PSEA-NEA), 560 Pa. 135, 150, 743 A.2d 405, 413 (1999). The trial court concluded that the parties' dispute was defined within the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and that the arbitrator's interpretation was rationally derived from the collective bargaining agreement. Accordingly, it agreed that the School ...


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