TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – The New Jersey Supreme Court recently reversed an appellate court's judgment, finding an arbitrator unfairly changed an "unbecoming conduct" claim against a teacher to a claim of sexual harassment.
In Bound Brook Board of Education v. Glenn Ciripompa, the New Jersey Supreme Court discussed the case of defendant Glenn Ciripompa, a tenured high school mathematics teacher whose behavior came under scrutiny by the Bound Brook Board of Education after the revelation of students' tweets alleging he was involved in the sending/receiving of nude photographs online.
According to the decision, an investigation uncovered Ciripompa’s misuse of his district-issued electronic devices, a laptop and an iPad, as well as his general inappropriate behavior aimed toward his female peers. The board found these findings to be sufficient enough evidence to call for Cirimpompa’s termination from his tenured position.
Cirimpompa, now the defendant, ended up with two counts against him. Count I focused on Ciripompa’s alleged misuse of his school laptop and iPad, an action that violates a district policy that prohibits employees and students from using the school’s loaned electronic property for illegal, inappropriate or obscene purposes, like sending/receiving nude photographs. In addition to the photographs, Cirimpompa used the devices to send offensive emails.
Count II focused on his alleged lewd behavior toward his female colleagues, which he was promptly accused of after investigators conducted interviews with four female staff members who allegedly revealed the clear existence of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The case was brought to the Commissioner of Education. The commissioner agreed that the charges were enough to warrant Ciripompa’s termination from his job. The case changed directions when the charges were then handed to an arbitrator, Michael Peckler, who found that the board did prove the allegations under Count I, but dismissed Count II. Thus, the penalty was reduced from the dismissal of Cirimpompa to a 120-day suspension, without pay, from his job.
Peckler did agree that the defendant acted inappropriately, but said that his actions could not be defined as sexual harassment because the working conditions were not considered clearly hostile. This did not comply with the Lehmann standard, which requires a hostile professional atmosphere to exist in order to accuse one of harassment. Peckler concluded that Ciripompa's behavior toward the female staff members did not merit him being fired because he had no prior disciplinary trouble.
The district then sought aid from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, and the court ended up reversing the arbitrator’s decision and ordered it to be checked over. The court concluded that Peckler had actually completely changed the nature of the situation by imposing a standard on Count II. The court said Peckler changed the inappropriate behavior charge to a sexual harassment charge.
This did not last long, though, with the Chancery Division’s decision moving on to be reversed by the Appellate Division. The panel did not find any problem with the arbitrator’s use of the Lehmann standard on Count II.
But the Supreme Court disagreed with the Appellate Division, vacating the arbitrator's decision. A new arbitrator will reevaluate the charges imposed on Cirimpompa.