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Patricia Bonatesta v. Northern Cambria School District

July 13, 2012


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

Submitted: January 6, 2012




Northern Cambria School District appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Cambria County (trial court) reversing its decision to suspend a district elementary school teacher, Patricia Bonatesta, for immoral conduct. The trial court concluded that the School Board‟s critical factual finding that Bonatesta had operated a vehicle while intoxicated was not supported by substantial evidence, leaving no basis for any discipline. Discerning no error, we affirm the trial court.

The School District‟s disciplinary action was prompted by its understanding of an event that took place the night of March 11, 2009, when Bonatesta‟s vehicle was stopped. Her vehicle was driven by Bonatesta‟s then boyfriend, David Mikitko, who had picked her up after she completed her shift as a cook at her parents‟ restaurant and bar. At approximately 9:00 p.m., Officer Ronald Schilling of the Susquehanna Township Police stopped Bonatesta‟s vehicle because he recognized Mikitko and knew that he was not allowed to operate a vehicle that was not equipped with an ignition interlock device. After receiving back-up from Officer Jason Owens of the Northern Cambria Borough Police, Schilling searched the vehicle and found a pistol registered to Bonatesta.*fn1 Because he found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the vehicle, Schilling charged Mikitko and Bonatesta with possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. Mikitko was separately charged for an interlock violation. Neither was charged with driving under the influence, and the officers allowed Bonatesta to drive the vehicle away from the scene. Reproduced Record at 181a (R.R. ___).

In response to this incident, the School District suspended Bonatesta without pay. In May 2009, the School District initiated a termination proceeding against Bonatesta pursuant to Section 1122 of the Public School Code of 1949 (School Code), Act of March 10, 1949, P.L. 30, as amended, 24 P.S. §11-1122.*fn2

The School District charged Bonatesta with immorality, based on her alleged possession of drugs, drug paraphernalia and a firearm. The termination proceeding was stayed, pending the outcome of the criminal charges.

On August 19, 2009, a suppression hearing was held before the trial court‟s criminal division at which Officers Schilling and Owens testified. Schilling testified that he found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in Bonatesta‟s vehicle and that Mikitko smelled of marijuana. He acknowledged that Mikitko was not tested for driving under the influence. Because Bonatesta had been working at a bar just before the traffic stop, Schilling asked Owens to give her a portable breathalyzer test. Schilling allowed Bonatesta to drive the vehicle away from the scene after Owens assured him that Bonatesta had passed the breathalyzer test.

Owens testified and contradicted Schilling‟s testimony. Owens testified that he did not see either drugs or drug paraphernalia in Bonatesta‟s vehicle; further, he did not observe Bonatesta to violate the law in any way. Owens confirmed that he administered a portable breathalyzer test to Bonatesta, and it showed that her blood alcohol level fell within the legal limits.

As a result of the suppression hearing, the criminal drug charges against Bonatesta and Mikitko were dismissed. However, Mikitko pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle without an interlock device.

On April 22, 2010, Bonatesta was called before the School District‟s superintendent and human resources director for a pre-termination Loudermill hearing.*fn3 At the time, Bonatesta had been teaching elementary school for 17 years and had never received a negative evaluation. The hearing was recorded.

Bonatesta explained that Mikitko picked her up in her vehicle at 9:00 p.m. on March 11, 2009, after she completed her shift at her parents‟ restaurant. Mikitko "seemed all right" to Bonatesta, and it did not appear to her that Mikitko was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. R.R. 199a, 201a. Bonatesta stated that she had not been drinking that evening. However, after reflection, she stated that she may have had one drink.*fn4 Bonatesta denied being intoxicated and pointed out that she had passed the breathalyzer test and was allowed to drive her vehicle home. Bonatesta acknowledged that she had a gun in the car, for which she has a permit. She had placed it in her car because she and Mikitko were planning to go camping and wanted to have the gun with them for protection. Bonatesta explained that she never drove to school with the gun in the car.

Following the Loudermill hearing, the School District issued amended termination charges, which alleged that: Bonatesta had allowed Mikitko to drive her car while he was intoxicated; Bonatesta was so intoxicated that she could not safely operate the vehicle; and Bonatesta had made a false statement at the Loudermill hearing by claiming that she had imbibed no more than one drink on March 11, 2009. Based on the amended charges, the School District sought Bonatesta‟s termination.

On June 10, 2010, the School Board conducted a hearing on these charges.*fn5 Bonatesta appeared and briefly testified. Bonatesta clarified that she could not be sure whether she had one drink or two drinks after finishing her shift on March 11, 2009, but it was definitely no more than two drinks. Bonatesta testified that "I definitely was not intoxicated when I left work that night." R.R. 56a. Bonatesta reiterated that she had no reason to believe Mikitko was under the influence when she got in the car with him or during the short time they were driving before being pulled over. Bonatesta explained that Mikitko had brought his children to the restaurant for pizza earlier that evening, where she had seen him drinking only soda. Because Mikitko had his children that evening, she did not believe he would be under the influence of anything.

Officer Owens appeared and testified at the School Board hearing. He explained that Schilling had contacted the Northern Cambria Borough Police when he spotted Mikitko in Northern Cambria Borough in a vehicle without an interlock device. Because Schilling did not respond to the Northern Cambria‟s dispatcher‟s calls to him, Owens was sent to the scene. Owens ...

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