Firing Too Harsh for Heroin-Toting Teacher

     MANHATTAN (CN) - A state judge ruled termination was too harsh a penalty for a Brooklyn teacher arrested for carrying heroin into a courthouse in a pack of cigarettes, saying suspension without pay might be more appropriate.
     "[T]ermination of employment is unduly harsh, an abuse of discretion and shocking to this court's sense of fairness," Justice Manuel Mendez of New York County Supreme Court wrote in a six-page decision.
     The city said it will appeal the ruling.
     Teacher Damian Esteban took his case to the court after an arbitrator found that firing him was "the only appropriate penalty" for conduct unbecoming to the district and to the profession.
     Esteban taught at Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design, a college-preparatory school in Brooklyn. Hired in 2007, he earned tenure in 2010.
     Esteban faced a district disciplinary hearing following his arrest last fall on a misdemeanor charge of possessing a controlled substance. He was stopped at a security checkpoint at the Criminal Court Building in Manhattan while reporting for jury duty after 20 packets of heroin were found in a cigarette pack.
     The New York City Department of Education outlined five charges against him, including engaging in criminal conduct, violating a so-called Chancellor's Regulation, neglecting his duty, and embarrassing himself and the district through media attention given to the case. One tabloid headline read "Jury-duty dope busted for bringing heroin to court."
     A hearing on the charges was held in March, and the arbitrator, Alan Berg, made his ruling in May.
     Esteban admitted to four of the five charges, according to the ruling. He disputed violating Chancellor's Regulation C-105, which requires timely reporting of an arrest, and Berg agreed to dismiss that charge, over the objections of the city Department of Education.
     Esteban testified at the hearing that he became addicted to heroin in 2011 after aggravating a childhood ankle injury and finding no relief in prescription pain-killers. He said he entered a drug-treatment program in January 2012 and no longer uses heroin.
     Esteban testified the heroin packets he carried into the courthouse in October likely came from an old backpack he had grabbed from a closet that day, but he was unaware they were there. Esteban was serving as a juror in a murder trial.
     He was jailed overnight and at arraignment the next day was given an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. He also agreed to submit to a one-day treatment readiness program.
     Six months later, the criminal charges were dismissed.
     Esteban argued at the hearing that the dismissal nullified all the remaining charges brought against him by the city, but the arbitrator disagreed.
     "The fact that Respondent [Esteban] has had the good fortune to avoid a criminal record does not preclude the possibility of very serious consequences for his conduct," Berg wrote in his 20-page decision.
     He found Esteban guilty of the charges and recommended his immediate dismissal.
     On Monday, Justice Mendez vacated Berg's decision. He noted that judicial review of administrative sanctions is limited and that penalties can be revised only if they are found to be disproportionate to the misconduct.
     Mendez found that to be the case with Esteban.
     "Given the circumstances - including that petitioner has admitted and is in treatment for his drug addiction; his possession of drugs was inadvertent; he was charged with misdemeanor drug possession; he received an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal; the charges against him were dismissed and the record sealed; the conduct took place off the school site and no student was involved; he has a spotless record as a teacher for five years and that lesser sanctions are available that would deter him from engaging in similar conduct in the future - the penalty of termination is excessive and shocking to this court's sense of fairness," Mendez wrote.
     The judge ordered the case returned to the district "for the imposition of an appropriate lesser penalty," which he suggested, in keeping with disciplinary actions in similar cases, could be suspension without pay.
     The city said Thursday it will appeal the decision.
     Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo both released statements saying they strongly disagreed with Mendez's ruling.
     "The judge ruled that the termination 'shocks the conscience,' which shows a callous indifference to the well-being of our students," the mayor said. "That truly shocks the conscience and boggles the mind."
     Said Cardozo, "We cannot fathom how a teacher who took 20 bags of heroin into a courthouse is fit to stand in front of a classroom and teach the city's schoolchildren."
     The appeal will be made to the Appellate Division's First Department in Manhattan.