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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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The deck seemed stacked against Ira Paul. The Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School math teacher had spent the better part of three years proving school administrators broke a promise about the number of hours he was required to work. And he did it all by his lonesome.
A nervy, overweight fellow who blinks his eyes at an alarming rate, Paul is not a member of the powerful United Teachers of Dade (UTD) union. Thus he represented himself in the grievance process, pushing it all the way to hearings before a federal mediator.
In August Paul emerged a winner. Arbitrator Robert Williams ruled that the district owed Paul $11,700 in back pay and that its attorney was so flagrantly misleading and evasive that the teacher deserved more than $375,000 in damages.
That total sounds about right, Paul says. "I did go through a lot, it wasn't easy," he states. "It messed up my family life for three years or so. I never expected to be taking on the whole school system over something so trivial." The award includes payment for psychiatric care and compensation for emotional anguish. He notes that he is still taking medication prescribed by his psychiatrist.
The school district has yet to cough up the money, though. In September the school board voted to pay a private law firm $75,000 to appeal the case. That appeal was filed this past Friday, November 20.
The controversy stems from a change in Paul's teaching schedule. In June 1995 Paul agreed to teach math to troubled kids in the School-Within-a-School (SWS) alternative education program. Hialeah-Miami Lakes assistant principal Marteen Longo and program coordinator Mana Oken outlined the deal in a memorandum to Paul and other potential participants: "Our intent is to schedule each teacher for four instructional periods...." Though the district's union contract allows schools to require teachers to work as many as five periods per day, Paul says Longo assured him a four-class maximum.
In October 1995, though, the student counts came in. The district reported there were fewer students in the school than expected. As a result Hialeah-Miami Lakes had to transfer some teachers; those who remained took on additional classes. Paul found himself teaching five periods when he thought the administration had agreed to only four. So he asked for additional compensation.
After Hialeah-Miami Lakes principal Elliott Berman rejected the request, Paul appealed to the region office. Then-region superintendent Frank DeVarona also denied his request. So Paul appealed again, this time to then-deputy superintendent of school operations (now-school board chairman) Solomon Stinson. He was again rebuffed.
Paul says the administration offered no explanation. "You go in, and they just sit there like a lump on a log and deny you," he grouses.
The next step was arbitration. In May 1996 Williams, an arbitrator with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, was appointed to hear the case. Paul again represented himself without help from the union or a lawyer. He is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of Miami-Dade's 19,000 teachers who don't belong to the UTD.
The school district's attorney was Gerald Williams (no relation to the arbitrator), who at the time was a private labor lawyer. Shortly after this case began, he joined the district as staff labor counsel.
In May 1997 the arbitrator split the case into two aspects: The first was Paul's demand for back wages. The second was Paul's allegation that the district had abused the grievance-arbitration process. The district lost big on both counts. On August 3, 1998, Robert Williams ruled in Paul's favor. The remedy? Compensatory and punitive damages totaling $388,547.64.
Reached for comment, Robert Williams explained that, as a federal mediator, "I can't say anything to you, other than 'Hello' and 'Good-bye.'" But in his final report, he gave a scathing assessment of Gerald Williams's tactics: The school system's lawyer showed "a pattern of bad faith. ... He misstated legal principles. He filed a premature motion to vacate the award. ... He sought to delay these arbitration proceedings on false grounds. ... He had witnesses testify to legal conclusions unsupported by any evidence. He presented back pay testimony that was twaddle. He tried to manipulate his own witness [the district staffer who administers the union contract] into refraining from giving harmful, but truthful testimony. ... Finally, he failed to refund the [school district's] share of the arbitrator's fees and expenses. This arbitrator found this pattern of misconduct did not pass muster under the good faith doctrine."
In short, Robert Williams wrote, the district and its counsel "have been using the grievance-arbitration process to cover up the truth of their misconduct and destroy [Paul's] right to a just result." Williams described Paul's problem as "a garden-variety dispute" that should have cost the district $11,700, plus $2500 in arbitration fees. "Instead, an inept and emotional [Paul] prosecuted his case. His initial efforts resulted in numerous frivolous contentions and unnecessary evidence. ... This bumbling was apparent." For its part the school district and its attorney "erroneously analyzed the case," then "sought to cover up their errors." Williams closed with a flourish, quoting Sir Walter Scott: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive!"
Gerald Williams, the district's labor counsel, denies all of those allegations. He contends the arbitrator ruled on an issue outside his purview: "I think that the arbitrator really got upset because we questioned him. This was an oral agreement, and [Robert] Williams is limited to arbitrating on the basis of the contract." As to the arbitrator's assessment of his conduct, he states: "I did not violate any code of conduct. Any time you litigate, you've got to be an advocate. All I did was represent my client."