Connecticut Court of Appeal building in Hartford. Photo: Google
The Connecticut Court of Appeals sided with a Kent-based boarding school in a arbitrary dismissal case where a teacher attempted to use a narrow section of law relating to public order.
The appeals court ruled 3-0 against plaintiff Aaron Zweig and in favor of the Marvelwood School.
“This ruling reaffirms the law and the narrowness of public order,” said Robert Mitchell, partner and labor lawyer at Mitchell & Sheahan in Stratford. “If the court were to expand the scope of the dismissal offense, the locks would be limited to the creative ability of the plaintiff’s attorney.”
Mitchell, vice chairman of the editorial board of the Connecticut Law Tribune who was not involved in the case, said labor attorneys were interested in the lawsuit because of the public order aspect.
Upon reviewing the case, Mitchell and two other labor law experts said they were not surprised by the verdict.
Plaintiff Zweig and his attorney attempted to set hopes of victory on the narrowness of the Connecticut Supreme Court case sheet against Teddy’s Frosted Foods. In that earlier litigation, Teddy’s Frosted Foods Inc. allegedly fired the plaintiff for alleging the company mislabelled food. There was public policy regarding food labeling and the plaintiff won the case.
But in the current lawsuit, experts said that no public policy governs the issue at the heart of the Zweig case. They say Zweig fell short in arguing that his employer violated public order about protecting children.
The question was that Zweig, who was once a history teacher at the school and taught food studies, was responsible for establishing and maintaining an on-campus garden for the students. Zweig claimed he lost his job over a year after complaining about a proposal to use telephone poles that had been treated with creosote, a pesticide and wood preservative, to create raised beds in the garden. In his plea, he said that he believed the chemical posed a health risk for him and the students.
But lawyers who checked the court records said the problem with this argument was that there was no public order regarding creosote.
“The plaintiff was trying to save himself and spin and say, ‘Well, there are a lot of laws that prohibit child abuse,'” said Kristan Peters-Hamlin, a labor law attorney in Norwalk who was not on the Case is involved. “But he did not show or suggest any specific regulation or any pre-judicial policy on the subject. There are none.”
Zweig would have reinforced his argument if he could have pointed out state or federal regulations banning the use of creosote-treated wood, the lawyers said.
“The plaintiff attempted to provide scientific information about creosote,” said Peters-Hamlin. “The court [judges]who are not scientists declined his invitation to usurp the role of regulators and interpret scientific data. “
In a letter to the court, Judge Nina Elgo said that according to the Sheets Doctrine, “one of the elements that the plaintiff must prove in order to be unlawfully released is causation”. The court and the experts say Zweig failed to do this.
Peters-Hamlin noted that it had been more than a year between Zweig’s complaint and his resignation.
“There is a complete discrepancy between his complaint and the action,” said the school.
Effects on whistleblowers?
Employment attorney Patrick Boyd of The Boyd Law Group in Stamford was unsurprised by the verdict, saying the court “made the right decisions”.
But he sees a downside.
“I am disappointed that we have not made any major progress in promoting and protecting whistleblowers,” Boyd said on Monday. “The problem with his case is that it wasn’t a good test case as he was dismissed more than a year after the complaint was made.”
Boyd, who is not involved in the case, said Zweig was “sure to be a whistleblower”.
“If I had a child at his school, I would want him to come forward and not be afraid to come forward,” said the lawyer.
Representing Zweig are Thomas Meiklejohn and Henry Murray, both with Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly in Hartford. Meiklejohn declined to comment and Murray was unavailable for comment.
Representatives of the school are the lawyers of Shipman & Goodwin, Daniel Schwartz and Christopher Engler. None of the lawyers responded to a request for comment on Monday.
3 cases seen in the Connecticut Supreme Court in April and May