Puchalski v. Depew Union Free School Dist.

The petitioner, Robert Puchalski, was an administrator for the respondent, Depew Union Free School District (“District”) and the Board of Education of Depew Union Free School District, for over seventeen years, and served as an elementary school principal since 2003. On February 28, 2012, Petitioner was served by Respondent with twenty-one charges of “misconduct, immoral character and/or conduct unbecoming a principal.”

Petitioner requested a hearing pursuant to Education Law section 3020-a, that was held and concluded on October 23, 2012. The Hearing Officer (HO) issued a decision on January 15, 2013 imposing a penalty of termination, and emailed the decision to the attorneys of the parties and the State Education Department (SED). On January 22, 2013 the SED mailed the decision to the parties, and Petitioner received it the following day.

On February 1, 2013, Petitioner filed a petition seeking an order vacating the decision of the HO pursuant to CPLR 7511. On February 5, 2013, Petitioner’s process server delivered the papers to a payroll clerk employed by the District despite being told that she was only responsible for payroll services, and that the District’s administrative offices were at a different location. In response, Respondents filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss the petition asserting that it was untimely and that there was improper service of process. The Supreme Court, Erie County, entered judgment against Petitioner, upholding Respondents’ motion to dismiss the petition holding that it was time-barred. Petitioner appealed and the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that the petition was timely, but affirmed the Supreme Court ruling on the alternative ground that Petitioner did not properly serve Respondents.

Respondents argued that the 10 day appeal deadline from a HO decision in Education Law section 3020-a, began to run when the HO e-mailed his final decision to Petitioner. However the Appellate determined that such a ruling would render the statute requirement that a HO notify the Commissioner of Education who in turn notifies the affected employee superfluous. Therefore the court held that the time to appeal began to run when Petitioner received the decision by mail from the SED.

Additionally, according to CPLR 311(a)(7), personal service upon a school district must be made to a school officer as defined in the education law. Education Law section 2(13) states that a school officer includes a clerk of any school district. Here, the court did not recognize the payroll clerk as a “clerk” within the definition of section 2(13), because Education Law section 2130, which was enacted at the same time. defined a clerk as a “treasurer and collector in union free school district” and further stipulates that an individual is to be appointed as clerk of the board of education of a district. Accordingly, the court held that the payroll clerk was not authorized to accept service of process, and affirmed the Supreme Court’s judgment to grant the respondents’ motion to dismiss.

989 N.Y.S.2d 739 (4th Dep’t. 2014)

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