Monday, September 14, 2020

Solidarity Teachers Win Temporary Restaining Order Broadening Accomodations - Only for Petitioners

Petitioners argue that DOE’s use of the CDC’s “high-risk” categories are arbitrary and capricious and “do not protect teachers who do not strictly fall within the CDC guidelines, but should also be allowed to work remotely due to their own medical concerns and concerns about the health and safety of their families and loved ones” (Pet’rs’ Affirm ¶ 8). Specifically, Petitioners argue that “it is irrational and arbitrary and capricious that educators who are smokers or suffer from obesity or are simply over 65 years old would be eligible for medical accommodations,” but that Petitioners would not qualify for the same accommodations based on the similar needs of their immediate family members (id. at ¶ 9).

CONCLUSION/ORDER

For the reasons above, it is

ORDERED that Petitioners’ motion for a temporary restraining order is GRANTED solely to the extent that Respondents may not compel Petitioners to report to work in person, may not deny them the ability to work remotely, and may not deny or deduct salary and/or leave time for remote work until further order of the Court; and it is further

ORDERED that this TRO applies only to the named Petitioners; and it is further

ORDERED that counsel for the parties shall forthwith confer regarding their immediate availability for an expedited remote hearing on the preliminary injunction and call the Court at 10 a.m. on September 15, 2020 to discuss the logistics of the hearing.

This constitutes the decision and order of the Court.

Some excerpts from the court decision including issues dismissed.

I. Standard for injunctive relief

CPLR 6301 provides, in relevant part, that

A preliminary injunction may be granted in any action where it appears that the defendant threatens or is about to do, or is doing or procuring or suffering to be done, an act in violation of the plaintiff’s rights respecting the subject of the action, and tending to render the judgment ineffectual, or in any action where the plaintiff has demanded and would be entitled to a judgment restraining the defendant from the commission or continuance of an act, which, if committed or continued during the pendency of the action, would produce injury to the plaintiff.

A preliminary injunction substantially limits a defendants rights and is thus an extraordinary provisional remedy requiring a special showing” (1234 Broadway LLC v W. Side SRO Law Project, Goddard Riverside Community Ctr., 86 AD3d 18, 23 [1st Dept 2011]). Thus, to establish entitlement to a TRO or preliminary injunction, the movant must demonstrate a probability of success on the merits, danger of irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction, and a balance of equities in its favor (Nobu Next Door, LLC v Fine Arts Hous., Inc., 4 NY3d 839, 840 [2005]). “While the proponent of a preliminary injunction need not tender conclusive proof beyond any factual dispute establishing ultimate success in the underlying action, a party seeking the drastic remedy of a preliminary injunction must nevertheless establish a clear right to that relief under the law and the undisputed facts upon the moving papers” (1234 Broadway LLC, 86 AD3d at 23).

“[T]he ordinary function of a preliminary injunction is not to determine the ultimate rights of the parties, but to maintain the status quo until there can be a full hearing on the merits. However, if relief is required because of imperative, urgent, or grave necessity, then a court, acting with great caution and upon clearest evidence, i.e., where the undisputed facts are such

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that without an injunction order a trial will be futile, may grant a preliminary injunction” (Spectrum Stamford, LLC v 400 Atl. Tit., LLC, 162 AD3d 615, 616 [1st Dept 2018] [affirming denial of injunction in the absence of “imperative, urgent, or grave necessity” that the current property manager be replaced at that time]). A mandatory preliminary injunction granting some form of the ultimate relief sought is granted only in unusual situations, where the granting of the relief is essential to maintain the status quo pending trial of the action” (Spectrum Stamford, 162 AD3d at at 617).

A. Likelihood of success on the merits

Petitioners argue that DOE’s use of the CDC’s “high-risk” categories are arbitrary and capricious and “do not protect teachers who do not strictly fall within the CDC guidelines, but should also be allowed to work remotely due to their own medical concerns and concerns about the health and safety of their families and loved ones” (Pet’rs’ Affirm ¶ 8). Specifically, Petitioners argue that “it is irrational and arbitrary and capricious that educators who are smokers or suffer from obesity or are simply over 65 years old would be eligible for medical accommodations,” but that Petitioners would not qualify for the same accommodations based on the similar needs of their immediate family members (id. at ¶ 9). At oral argument, Petitioners also alleged the existence of an additional accommodation policy affording each school principal additional discretion to grant an accommodation. Petitioners also attach a recent Florida Circuit Court decision imposing a temporary injunction barring Governor Ron DeSantis from mandating that teachers return to in-person instruction, together with newspaper articles highlighting other school districts which have chosen to transition to all-remote learning for the foreseeable future (Florida Education Association, et al., v. Desantis, et al., No. 2020-CA-001450 [Fla. 2nd Cir. Ct. Aug. 24, 2020], NYSCEF 4-5).

As an initial matter, Respondents argue that Petitioners have not met the standards for mandamus relief. Respondents are generally correct that “a mandamus to compel may not force the performance of a discretionary act, but rather only purely ministerial acts to which a clear legal right exists” (Matter of Anonymous v Commissioner of Health, 21 AD3d 841 [1st Dept 2005]).

However, at this juncture, it does not appear that Petitioners are seekingor, at minimum, seeking onlymandamus to compel the performance of any statutory (or other) duty; in Respondents’ words, “to upend the DOE’s reopening plan and reasonable accommodation guidelines” (Opp ¶ 50). Rather, Petitioners are seeking review of the Accommodation Policy’s failure to contemplate the documented medical needs of immediate family members, as well as the allegedly inconsistent application of the Accommodation Policy; specifically, that similarly- situated colleagues were afforded an accommodation (see e.g. Matter of Scherbyn v Wayne- Finger Lakes Bd. of Co-op. Educ. Services, 77 NY2d 753, 757 [1991]) [“...mandamus to review ... differs from mandamus to compel in that a petitioner seeking the latter must have a clear legal right to the relief demanded and there must exist a corresponding nondiscretionary duty on the part of the administrative agency to grant that relief,” while a “... mandamus to review ... examines an administrative action involving the exercise of discretion” (Matter of Scherbyn v Wayne-Finger Lakes Bd. of Co-op. Educ. Services, 77 NY2d 753, 757 [1991]).

 

B. Danger of irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction

Petitioners argue that the failure to grant injunctive relief will result in irreparable harm because they are faced with choosing between their health and the health of their families and their economic livelihoods (Pet’rs’ Affirm ¶¶ 3, et seq.). Respondents argue that irreparable harm “must be of the type that cannot be redressed by money damages or other relief” (Opp ¶¶ 68, et seq.).

As a general matter, it is true that the prospective injury, as alleged by Petitioners, if they are forced to return to in-person teaching is potentially irreparable: a significant illness, hospitalization, or even death could result from any one infection (see Innovative Health Systems, Inc. v City of White Plains, 117 F3d 37, 43-44 [2d Cir 1997] [finding irreparable harm where the closure of a treatment program would pose serious risk of harm to plaintiffs, including

“death, illness or disability”]; see also Cuomo predicts Covid-19 outbreaks in K-12 schools amid reopenings, NY Post, Aug. 31 2020 [“A coronavirus outbreak in schools that forces them to shutter and turn to all-remote learning is inevitable, Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned Monday. ... ‘It is inevitable that when you bring a concentration of people together, the transmission rate will go up,’ Cuomo said.”]; see also CDC: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Transmission Dynamics of Covid-19 Outbreaks Associated with Child Care Facilities Salt Lake City, Utah, April-July 2020, Sep. 11, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/ wr/mm6937e3.htm?s_cid=mm6937e3_w] [determining that Covid-19 transmission was documented from 12 children in child care facilities, including two asymptomatic children, to at least 26% of 46 confirmed or probable non-facility cases, including the hospitalization of one parent]).

However, the damage sought to be enjoined must be likely and not merely possible; fear or apprehension of the possibility of injury alone is not a basis for injunctive relief (Dist. Council 82, 64 NY2d at 240 [“where the harm sought to be enjoined is contingent upon events which may not come to pass, the claim to enjoin the purported hazard [closure of prisons] is nonjusticiable as wholly speculative and abstract.”]; see also Frey v DeCordova Bend Estates Owners Ass'n, 647 SW2d 246, 248 [Tex 1983] [denying injunctive relief sought on basis of fear that assessed fees would be invalid]; Callis, Papa, Jackstadt & Halloran, P.C. v Norfolk and W. Ry. Co., 195 Ill 2d 356, 371, 748 NE2d 153, 162 [2001] [denying injunctive relief based on fear of disclosure of confidential information]). That said, Petitioners’ allegations regarding their respective school buildings is entirely speculative; where there is any support provided, it is based on conditions from six months ago. While courts across the country have concluded that the risk of contracting Covid-19 as a result of unsafe conditions constitutes irreparable harm, those decisions discussed confinement, usually in immigration detention (see Martinez-Brooks v

Easter, 3:20-CV-00569 (MPS), 2020 WL 2405350, at *27 [D Conn May 12, 2020], citing Wilson v Williams, 2020 WL 1940882, at *9 [N.D.Ohio Apr. 22, 2020]; Mays v Dart, 2020 WL 1812381, at *13 [N.D. Ill. Apr. 9, 2020]; Basank v Decker, 2020 WL 1481503, at *4 [S.D.N.Y. Mar. 26, 2020] [“The risk that Petitioners will face a severe, and quite possibly fatal, infection if they remain in immigration detention constitutes irreparable harm warranting a TRO.”]).

Petitioners’ characterization of their dilemma as a “Hobson’s Choice” is apropos.

“Hobson’s Choicederives from the “take it or leave it” practice of a livery keeper in Cambridge

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England in the 1600s who, when a customer wanted to rent a horse, would rotate the order in

which he lent his livestock. The customer could not choose his mount and had to either take the

horse offered or leave without a mount. Here, Petitioners face a difficult choice, but not an

impossible one. They have the option, however difficult or unappealing, of choosingas some

already haveto utilize accrued leave time by staying home. Petitioners’ papers do not contain

information regarding each Petitioner’s individual leave or pay situations; to the extent, however,

that they may lose accrued leave, or eventually pay, “[i]njuries that are compensable by

monetary relief, even if monetary damages are difficult to calculate, are not irreparable for the

purposes of a preliminary injunction (SportsChannel Am. Associates v Nat'l Hockey League, 186

AD2d 417, 418 [1st Dept 1992]). Accordingly, Petitioners have not demonstrated a danger of

irreparable injury.

C. Balance of the equities

Petitioners argue that DOE: “(1) has a record of disregarding the health and safety of students and staff in their schools, (2) is forcing employees to choose between their lives and health and a paycheck on September 8, 2020, and (3) is arbitrarily determining that only certain employees merit a remote work accommodation due to its July 15, 2020 policy” (Pet’rs’ Affirm ¶ 12). Respondents focus on “[t]he harm done to the children of the City by an absence of teachers who do not themselves qualify for a reasonable accommodation in the form of remote work ...” (Opp ¶ 76). Respondents argue that “[o]ver one million children will be deprived of access to in- person education if schools are forced to move to a fully remote model because there are not enough teachers available to deliver on-site learning, should these petitioners and others refuse to perform their job duties” (id.).

In evaluating the balance of equities on a motion for a preliminary injunction, courts must weigh the interests of the general public as well as the interests of the parties to the litigation” (Amboy Bus Co., Inc. v Klein, 2010 NY Slip Op 31356[U], *24-25 [Sup Ct, NY County 2010, Madden, J.]). To obtain an injunction, a plaintiff is “required to show that the irreparable injury to be sustained is more burdensome to him than the harm that would be caused to the defendant through the imposition of the injunction(Lombard v Sta. Sq. Inn Apts. Corp., 94 AD3d 717, 721-722 [2d Dept 2012]).

Respondents express (justified) concern for one million pupils, but that concern is overstated, as any injunctive relief will, to the extent that no other evidence regarding any other parties has been presented, be limited to the five Petitioners, and therefore only to their students. Additionally, to the extent that Respondents express staffing concerns, shortly before the issuance of this decision, Mayor de Blasio stated that 2,000 additional educators” would be deployed across New York City (New York City Answers Call For More Teachers, Establishes COVID Situation Room To Monitor Cases In Schools, https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2020/09/14/ nyc-schools-covid-situation-room/]). Moreover, in determining the parties’ respective burdens, it is significant that several Petitioners have already been granted leave to work remotely until at least September 21, 2020, or have simply declined to return in-person until further notice. Accordingly, the Court finds that the balance of the equitiesby an exceedingly thin marginfavors Petitioners.

Regardless of the precise nature of the challenge, Respondents rightly focus on a seminal case which, like this one, implicates both work safety and the separation of powers:

New York State Inspection, Sec. and Law Enf't Employees, Dist. Council 82, AFSCME, AFL-CIO v Cuomo, 64 NY2d 233 [1984] [“Dist. Council 82”]). In that case, corrections personnel sought to prevent New York from partially converting a psychiatric center to a medium security correctional facility as part of a capital expansion plan, arguing that doing so would exacerbate the risk of serious bodily injury and death to persons employed at prison facilities, in violation of their statutory right to a safe workplace (Dist. Council 82, 64 NY2d at 238).

The Court analyzed the scope of the judiciary’s role within our tripartite system of government, holding that “[t]he lawful acts of executive branch officials, performed in satisfaction of responsibilities conferred by law, involve questions of judgment, allocation of resources and ordering of priorities, which are generally not subject to judicial review. This judicial deference to a coordinate, coequal branch of government includes one issue of justiciability generally denominated as the political questiondoctrine” (id. at 239). By seeking to vindicate their legally protected interest in a safe workplace,” the Court held, the “petitioners call for a remedy which would embroil the judiciary in the management and operation of the State correction system” (id.; see also S. Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom, 140 S Ct 1613, 207 L Ed 2d 154 [2020] [denying injunctive relief against Covid-19-related attendance restrictions at houses of worship because “[o]ur Constitution principally entrusts the safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States to guard and protect [and] [w]hen those officials undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties, their latitude must be especially broad”] [Roberts, C.J., concurring]).

Respondents express (justified) concern for one million pupils, but that concern is overstated, as any injunctive relief will, to the extent that no other evidence regarding any other parties has been presented, be limited to the five Petitioners, and therefore only to their students. Additionally, to the extent that Respondents express staffing concerns, shortly before the issuance of this decision, Mayor de Blasio stated that 2,000 additional educators” would be deployed across New York City (New York City Answers Call For More Teachers, Establishes COVID Situation Room To Monitor Cases In Schools, https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2020/09/14/ nyc-schools-covid-situation-room/]). Moreover, in determining the parties’ respective burdens, it is significant that several Petitioners have already been granted leave to work remotely until at least September 21, 2020, or have simply declined to return in-person until further notice. Accordingly, the Court finds that the balance of the equitiesby an exceedingly thin marginfavors Petitioners.

 

Undertaking

To the extent that Respondents seek an undertaking “to reimburse the City for lost monetary savings ... [because] all plans for the start of the school year will need to be dramatically altered, resulting in substantial cost to the DOE, in addition to inconvenience to well over a million New Yorkers,” Respondents’ allegations are overbroad and speculative. Accordingly, that branch of the motion is denied without prejudice.

CONCLUSION/ORDER

For the reasons above, it is

ORDERED that Petitioners’ motion for a temporary restraining order is GRANTED solely to the extent that Respondents may not compel Petitioners to report to work in person, may not deny them the ability to work remotely, and may not deny or deduct salary and/or leave time for remote work until further order of the Court; and it is further

ORDERED that this TRO applies only to the named Petitioners; and it is further

ORDERED that counsel for the parties shall forthwith confer regarding their immediate availability for an expedited remote hearing on the preliminary injunction and call the Court at 10 a.m. on September 15, 2020 to discuss the logistics of the hearing.

This constitutes the decision and order of the Court.

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