Delaware employers–private and public–may benefit from a recent decision from the Delaware Supreme Court upholding the termination of a school teacher. The elementary school cited “immorality” as the basis for the termination of a 34-year old male teacher. Lehto v. Board of Education of the Caesar Rodney School District, No. 175, 2008 (Del. Dec. 2, 2008).
The court held that the teacher, who had a sexual affair with a 17-year old female student, was guilty of immorality. The student did not attend school in the district where the teacher worked, although her sister did, but the teacher had taught her some years before in elementary school.
The teacher had renewed his acquaintance with the student when she began coming to his school to pick up her younger sister, and they began an intimate relationship. Eventually, the affair became known in the community, and the teacher was charged with fourth degree rape, but the charge was nolle prossed because the teacher was not in a position of trust or supervision over the student. After a hearing, the school board terminated the teacher, who had positive teaching evaluations, concluding that his “engaging in a sexual relationship with a minor . . . violated the common mores of society” and “interferes with [the teacher’s] important function of serving as a role model to the students.”
The termination was upheld by the Delaware Superior Court and affirmed by the Delaware Supreme Court. Even though the conduct took place outside of the school and with a non-student of the district, “there was a proper nexus between his alleged off-duty conduct and his fitness to teach.” Especially interesting and broadly significant is the court’s conclusion that the public disclosure of the relationship permitted the inference that allowing the teacher to remain could “reasonably undermine parents’ confidence in both [the teacher] and the District.”
Private employers are often faced with decisions concerning off-duty conduct of their employees. One rationale that has been applied is whether the conduct, if it became public, could damage the employer’s reputation. Most frequently, the issue arises when employees who enter people’s homes as part of their job are charged with, but not yet convicted, of crimes. This case supports the conclusion that if public confidence in the employer would be undermined by the knowledge that the employer retained an employee who was charged with a notorious crime, that is a sufficient reason for termination.
This isn’t the first time off-duty conduct has played a role in the termination of a teacher: