The meaning of standard immorality clauses in teaching contracts has long been a source of controversy. Such clauses tend to be very ambiguous and can sweep protected (but unpopular) activities within their scope. Now, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued an opinion upholding an interpretation of the clause for that state, ordering a new hearing for Sherie Leigh Vrable, 49, of Washington Township in Fayette County, who was fired as a teaching assistant in an emotional support class with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit. The immorality cited was her overdose of a drug at the school.
The close 3-2 opinion is very interesting. A teacher for 23-years, Vrable was found unconscious in a restroom at West Newton Elementary School. She was found to have overdosed on Fentanyl, a morphine-like pain-relief drug from a patch she had placed on her back. She was criminally charged with possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to a year’s probation without verdict for the offense.
Her firing was initially reversed by a state arbiter. The Supreme Court ruled that the arbiter’s decision under the collective bargaining agreement should be respected. In this sense, the decision resembles another collective bargaining contract decision that found that nurses in Washington state could not be required to have flu shots, discussed here
Its opinion noted that “the arbitrator sustained the Association’s grievance by finding that the Intermediate Unit lacked just cause to terminate Ms. Vrable because her conduct did not rise to the level of immorality.”
The Court noted that the arbiter could reasonably conclude that:
This conclusion was based upon the finding of a foolish mistake by
Ms. Vrable in using a friend’s Fentanyl patch; that this mistake did not so grossly offend the
morals of the community so as to rise to the level of immorality, especially in light of it being
one and only one workplace incident in Ms. Vrable’s 23-year unblemished tenure with the
Tt is unfortunate that school still use these imprecise immorality clauses that are invitations for inconsistent and biased punishments. However, putting immorality aside, there is a valid concern about the continuation of such a person in teaching. After all, she was doing drugs while in charge of children. If there had been an emergency situation or other crisis, her ability to perform would have been questionable. On the other side is the public policy to encourage people with alcohol and drug problems to seek recovery. We want to encourage teachers to come forward and not fear retaliation. However, this allowance is usually lost when the problem is concealed and results in an arrest at work.
The Pennsylvania decision is likely to be cited across the county in other collective bargaining contract disputes. Here is the majority opinion and an article.
“This conclusion was based upon the finding of a foolish mistake by Ms. Vrable in using a friend’s Fentanyl patch; that this mistake did not so grossly offend the morals of the community so as to rise to the level of immorality, especially in light of it being the one and only one workplace incident in Ms. Vrable’s 23-year unblemished tenure with the Intermediate Unit,” the court said in a 19-page decision.
The court added that Westmoreland Common Pleas Court, at a future proceeding, should consider whether Vrable’s reinstatement “contravenes a well-defined, dominant public policy that is ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from mere general considerations of supposed public interests.”
Vrable could not be reached for comment Friday.
Attempts to reach officials at the Intermediate Unit were unsuccessful.
Paul Peirce can be reached at email@example.com or 724-850-2860.
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