Garney v. Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Sys., No. 11493 (Mass. Aug. 18, 2014)
Abstract: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that a former public school teacher, who pleaded guilty to several counts of purchasing and possessing child pornography, did not forfeit his pension by operation of state law based on his criminal convictions. The court concluded that the law in question, which requires forfeiture of public employee retirement benefits “after final conviction of a criminal offense involving violation of the laws applicable to [the employee’s] office or position,” was not applicable to the former teacher’s criminal convictions because those offenses “neither referenced public employment nor bore a direct factual link to his teaching position.”
Facts/Issues: Ronald T. Garney (Garney), a ninth grade science teacher, was arrested in 2006 for the purchase and possession of child pornography. Shortly after his arrest, he received notice that he would be dismissed from his position for conduct unbecoming a teacher and resigned prior to his dismissal. On August 7, 2007, after his arrest, but prior to entering a plea, he filed a retirement application with the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System (MTRS). His retirement became effective on August 22, 2007. Garney was thereafter indicted and on December 20, 2007, he pleaded guilty to eleven counts of purchasing and possessing child pornography.
Garney received retirement benefits until 2009. In 2009, the MTRS board (board) issued a decision concluding that he had forfeited his benefits because of his conviction, by operation of G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4), which requires forfeiture of public employee retirement benefits “after final conviction of a criminal offense involving violation of the laws applicable to [the employee’s] office or position.” After receiving the findings of a hearing officer, the board concluded that there was “a direct link between Mr. Garney’s employment and his possession of child pornography,” in part because he used an e-mail address provided by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Therefore, the board concluded that he met the requirements of the statute, warranting forfeiture.
Garney filed a petition with a state district court for review of the board’s decision. The district court affirmed the board’s decision finding that teachers hold a position of special trust and that the criminal acts committed by Garney directly contravened his duty to protect the welfare of children. As a result, the district court concluded that a requisite link between his criminal convictions and his public position was established, such that his crimes “involv[ed] violation of the laws applicable to his office or position.” The judge noted that the private nature of the crime, and the fact that it did not involve school resources or any of Garney’s students, did not call for a different result where the welfare of children is a core tenet of the teaching position, and the crime that Garney committed was directly at odds with this tenet.
Garney petitioned for certiorari review in the superior court. That court reversed the decision of the district court, and vacated the decision of the board that Garney’s pension was forfeited under G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4). The superior court concluded that although Garney’s crimes were severe and undoubtedly warranted both criminal prosecution and dismissal from his position, there was not a direct link between his convictions and his position as a teacher since his criminal offenses did not involve the use of school resources and he did not use his position as a teacher to facilitate his crime. It rejected the district court judge’s interpretation of prior caselaw and MTRS’ argument that because teachers fill a special societal role, a conviction of possession of child pornography necessarily violates the laws applicable to that role.
MTRS appealed the superior court’s ruling and the state Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case from the Appeals Court on its own motion to clarify the scope of one of its previous decisions related to the forfeiture of retirement benefits.
Ruling/Rationale: In limiting its review to the scope of the forfeiture provision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the superior court’s decision, which reversed the district court and vacated the MTRS board’s decision. The state supreme court concluded that the fact that Garney’s position is one of special public trust, and that criminal conduct of the type committed by the Garney violates that trust, is insufficient in and of itself to warrant forfeiture of his pension benefits. The court concluded that the conduct must either directly involve the position or be contrary to a central function of the position as articulated in applicable laws, thereby creating a direct link to the position.
The court began its analysis by pointing out that the “direct link” requirement of the forfeiture law does not mean that the crime must necessarily reference public employment, the employee’s particular position or duties, or that the crime necessarily must have been committed at or during work. However, the court emphasized that in the absence of such circumstances, “there must be some direct connection between the criminal offense and the employee’s official capacity by way of the laws directly applicable to the public position.”
The supreme court concluded that Garney’s offenses neither referenced public employment nor bore a direct factual link to his teaching position. It cited the fact that his crimes were committed outside school, did not involve the use of school resources and no student was involved in his illicit activities. In a footnote, the court stressed its agreement with both the district and superior courts that Garney’s use of a government issued email address to access at least some of the pornography websites did not establish a sufficient factual link between his criminal offenses and his teaching position. It cited a number of cases in which the lack of a factual link had been fatal to the MTRS board’s claim that forfeiture was warranted.
The court rejected MTRS’ argument that even in the absence of a factual connection between Garney’s crimes and his public position, a direct link exists because his position as a teacher involves holding a special public trust and “his criminal conduct of possessing child pornography strikes at the ‘heart’ of this position by violating one of its ‘fundamental tenets,’ as embodied in the professional standards for teachers.” Instead, it concluded that the fact that Garney held a special public trust as a teacher and that his criminal activity violated that trust, was insufficient on its own to warrant forfeiture under G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4).
The supreme court pointed out that the standards entering or remaining in the profession of teaching “are not the same as the standard for forfeiting a pension to which an employee has contributed and that he or she earned over the course of many years of public service.” It found that the forfeiture law requires “something more specific than a violation of a special public trust in the particular public position.” While acknowledging conduct betraying that public trust may warrant dismissal from the profession,” it is insufficient to justify forfeiture under G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4).
The court emphasized that to adopt MTRS’s interpretation of the statute would result in forfeiture of a teacher’s pension for the commission of just about any crime and this is well beyond what the legislature intended when it promulgated the statute.
The court then addressed the question of whether Garney’s conduct violated any laws applicable to his position as a teacher. It found that his conduct had not. It concluded:
Private possession of child pornography by a secondary school teacher does not directly contravene this central function where there is no indication that this possession compromised the safety, welfare, or learning of the children whom he was tasked with teaching or impeded his ability to provide adequate educational lessons to his students. As reprehensible as Garney’s crimes may be, the entirely private nature of his conduct does not call into question the effectiveness of the educational system of the Commonwealth.
Lastly, the supreme court rejected MTRS’s contention that Garney’s status as a mandated reporter of child abuse provides the requisite connection for forfeiture. It pointed out that the duty to report arises only when the teacher becomes aware of or suspects child abuse while fulfilling his professional duties. It found that not only was Garney not aware of the identities of the children in the pornography and therefore did not have the requisite information, but he also did not learn of this abuse in his professional capacity. The court said, “As Garney’s criminal conduct was independent of his role as a teacher, he was not required under the plain meaning of G. L. c. 119, § 51A, to report this conduct.
Garney v. Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Sys., No. 11493 (Mass. Aug. 18, 2014)
[Editor’s Note: In July 2014, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Denver Post reporting that in Colorado, those designated as “mandatory reporters” under state law seldom face criminal sanctions for failing to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement or child welfare services. Educators are among those designated as “mandatory reporters.” Failing to do so can result in criminal charges and up to six months in jail.]