Many relationships between employees and employers are governed by at-will employment. At-will employment means the employee or employer may end the employment relationship for a good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.
A different type of relationship often governs teachers, whereby teachers serve a certain amount of time on a probationary status, and then receive tenure for which they may not have their employment terminated but for just cause.
The First Judicial Department in New York recently ruled on a case where a teacher, working for the New York City Department of Education (DOE), acquired tenure through estoppel. The individual was initially hired as a special education teacher and was subject to a three-year probationary period, which was later extended through agreement for a fourth year.
Approximately six months prior to the end of her probationary period, the employee was temporarily reassigned from her teaching duties to a clerical job. The DOE did not provide her with any decision regarding her tenure by the expiration of her probationary period. About a year after being assigned to the clerical position, the DOE reassigned her back to teaching duties. Following an incident with the principal a month later, the teacher took an unapproved leave of absence, and was subsequently notified by the DOE that it was discontinuing her probationary service.
The court ruled that the individual acquired tenure by estoppel because it accepted her continued services. Stated differently, even though the DOE failed to take action to either grant or deny the teacher tenure, tenure was attached as a default when the probationary period expired. The DOE’s argument that the employee’s services in the clerical position should not be counted toward her probationary period was rejected, even though the positon for which the employee now has tenure is for teaching. As a result, the court ordered that the teacher be reinstated to her teaching position and awarded back pay.
Educational institutions are advised to carefully track employee probationary periods and to remove employees prior to the end of the probationary period if there are performance issues.
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