Forrest v. Ambach

436 N.Y.S.2d 119; 463 N.Y.S.2d 84; app dis. 455 N.E.2d 1268 (table)
Brief(s) Filed: 9/80; 7/81; 12/82
Court: New York Supreme Court and New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division
Year of Decision: 1980 for 436 N.Y.S.2d and 1983 for 463 N.Y.S.2d

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 277KB)

Issue

Whether the New York Commissioner of Education acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in not permitting a school psychologist to challenge her employment termination for disagreeing with the State Commissioner regarding the statutory requirements for services to handicapped children

Index Topic

Employment (First Amendment)

Facts

Ms. Forrest, a psychologist who had served as an employee of a school district in New York, was dismissed from her position in 1979. The school system alleged that the dismissal was caused by her inability to develop collegial relations and failure to follow its policies concerning the evaluation of handicapped children. Ms. Forrest claimed that she was fired for attempting to comply with federal and state law and that, if she had followed district rules, she would have violated not only those laws but also APA's ethical and professional standards. The recommendation by the superintendent for termination was upheld by the local school board and affirmed by the New York Commissioner of Education after a formal hearing. Ms. Forrest then appealed to the New York Supreme Court in Albany, requesting that the court reverse the commissioner's decision, and APA submitted an amicus brief on her behalf. The trial court held that it had limited jurisdiction to review the commissioner's decision upholding Ms. Forrest's termination of employment. Finding the commissioner's decision rational, the court dismissed the case. The court agreed with APA's argument in its brief that Ms. Forrest's conduct with regard to her disagreement and dissent from her employer's policies concerning the identification and placement of handicapped children was constitutionally protected. However, the court held that to ultimately prevail against the school district, Ms. Forrest would have to prove that this protected activity was a substantial or motivating factor in her firing and that the Board of Education would not have reached the same decision in the absence of the protected conduct. It was with regard to the latter that the commissioner found sufficient other fault with Ms. Forest's service to justify her dismissal. Ms. Forrest appealed the trial court's decision.

APA's position

APA submitted another brief on her behalf arguing that: (1) the court used an improper standard of review in considering the commissioner's determination that Ms. Forrest failed to demonstrate that her First Amendment-protected conduct was a substantial or motivating factor in her dismissal; (2) the court erroneously placed the burden of persuasion on Ms. Forrest; and, (3) the preponderance of the evidence did not support the finding that Ms. Forrest would have been dismissed in the absence of the protected conduct.

Results

The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, upheld the lower court and held that the exercise of Ms. Forrest's freedom of expression was not a substantial factor in motivating the decision to dismiss her. The court never reached APA's contention that the court misinterpreted constitutional law in reviewing her firing. Ms. Forrest appealed to the New York Court of Appeals (the state's highest court) but was denied jurisdiction because the court did not find a substantial constitutional question at issue.