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Jil Mazer-Marino Featured in LIBN’s “Who’s Who: Women in Professional Services”

Written by: Lisa Morris Josefak

Jil Mazer-Marino is a member of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. in Garden City. She was named a member in 2011 having joined the firm as Of Counsel to the firm’s Bankruptcy & Business Reorganization and Corporate Finance law practice in 2008.

Mazer-Marino practices in the area of bankruptcy and creditors’ rights and has extensive experience representing debtors, creditors’ committees, and secured and unsecured creditors in large and complex chapter 11 bankruptcy cases.

Mazer-Marino represents chapter 7 and chapter 11 trustees, chapter 11 debtors in possession, and plan administrators in all aspects of bankruptcy case administration. Additionally, she represents banks, indenture trustees, factors and other lenders in connection with debtor in possession financing, out of court debt restructuring, and debt collection.

As a commercial bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, Mazer-Marino counsels businesses in financial distress. “ I also represent banks, finance companies, landlords and other creditors in and out of the bankruptcy arena,” she said. “In addition, I am on the panel of  Chapter 7 Trustees for the Southern District of New York. I recently began counseling businesses in the booming Cannabis industry.”

“Although legal in New York for medical use — and expected to be legalized for adult recreational use — cannabis remains illegal on a federal level,” she noted. “This schizophrenic and changing legal landscape has created tremendous opportunity but also perilous legal risks for entrepreneurs.”

Mazer-Marino was recognized as a New York Super Lawyer from 2013-2017.

She is admitted to practice in New York State and before the U.S. District Court, Southern and Eastern Districts of New York.

Prior to joining Meyer, Suozzi, Mazer-Marino was a partner at the bankruptcy boutique firm of Rosen Slome Marder, LLP. From 1990 through 1991, she served as a law clerk to Hon. Conrad B. Duberstein, former Chief United States Bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of New York, after which she practiced in the business reorganization and restructuring department of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP in New York City.

Founded in 1960, Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. is a distinguished provider of legal services, with a reputation for integrity, insight and excellent client service. With offices in Albany, Garden City, Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the firm provides legal advice in 18 practice areas. The firm’s attorneys are known for their commitment to their clients, community, public affairs, and diversity.


Hon. Randall Eng Mentioned in LIBN’s “Love, Law & Marriage”

Brothers Harvey and Joel Berk, as their attorneys tell it, we’re headed to the funeral home. It was 2006, and their 100 year-old-father had just died. In the car, their dad’s caretaker revealed she had married their father, Irving Berk.

The caretaker, Hua Wang, who is known as Judy, told the siblings that she and their father married in the last year, the attorneys said. According to court documents, she was nearly 48 when they married, while Irving Berk was 99. And as his spouse, she told the brothers, her name belonged on the death certificate, according to the attorneys.

“She’d kept it a secret from the family, his medical providers – anyone you’d expect to know,” said John Farinacci, a partner at Uniondale-based law firm, Ruskin Moscou Faltischek. Farinacci, and his wife Jessica Baquet, a partner at the Garden City-based law firm Jaspan Schlesinger, represent the brothers.

And while the brothers claimed their father was mentally incapacitated, Wang maintained that was not the case.

“Ms. Wang deeply loved and cared for Mr. Berk and spent all her time with him,” her attorney, Jordan Weitberg, a principal of the law firm Bressler Amery Ross, told the New York Law Journal.

As Irving Berk’s spouse, Wang filed the right to take a third of the estate.

But Berk, the founder of the Berk Trade and Business School in New York, had never changed his will to provide an inheritance for Wang, Farinacci and Baquet said.

And while court documents show that Wang maintained over the years that Berk was “fully capable of entering into a marriage at the time of his nuptials with her,” the co-executors say their father suffered from dementia.

After a 37-day trial, Acting Brooklyn Surrogate Judge John Ingram deemed in his June 2018 ruling that it was “impossible to believe” that Wang did not know of Berk’s “diminished mental incapacity,” especially given the “significant” amount of time she spent with him, and the number of doctors’ visits and hospitalizations.

A growing demand

The decision comes at a time of growing demand for caregivers as the population ages, experts said. The number of Americans ages 65 and older is expected to more than double to more than 98 million in 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

It’s a case that trust and estate attorneys in New York State have followed in the media for more than a decade.

Over the course of that time, Farinacci and Baquet would work on the case together, first at one law firm, and then at separate firms. They grew close, ultimately marrying.

The legal battle marked the first to apply new tests created by New York’s appellate courts, and the decision is considered a bellwether of change for the courts in the way they handle elder exploitation – an area that may become more prevalent, experts said.

“People are living longer and increasingly need to rely on others for care,” Farinacci said. “There will always be people who exploit the situation,” noting that inheritances could be at stake.

The law “didn’t intend for a spouse like Judy, if she, in fact, committed wrongdoing, to get one-third of an elderly man’s estate because she was cunning enough to marry him,” Baquet said.

Wang had immigrated to the United States in 1996 from China, where she worked as an ophthalmologist at a hospital, records show. A year later she was hired as a live-in caretaker for Berk, who at the time was 91.

Berk first arrived in the United States in 1940, an immigrant from Romania. He built up an estate worth $5 million, according to published reports. His accredited school provides training for plumbers, electricians, car mechanics, and secretaries. But Berk became mentally incapacitated, ultimately needing care.

2008 ruling

After Berk died, Wang asserted her rights under a New York law that entitles a deceased person’s spouse to one-third of the estate despite what the will says.

The brothers claimed that Wang should not be permitted to inherit because she influenced their father to marry her when he was mentally incapacitated.

By 2008, then Brooklyn Surrogate Judge Diana Johnson initially ruled in favor of Wang, as a technical matter, holding: “While this may appear incongruous and seemingly invite a plethora of surreptitious ‘deathbed marriages’ as a means of obtaining one-third of a decedent’s estate immune from challenge, this is simply the state of the law.”

The brothers appealed in 2010 and, in a landmark decision, the appellate court held for the first time that a surviving spouse could be disqualified from inheriting in this kind of case if a certain test was met. The appellate court sent the case back to the Surrogate’s Court for a trial as to whether Berk had truly been mentally incapacitated and whether Wang married him anyway for financial gain.

Wang’s legal team includes Benjamin Xue of Xue & Associates, a New York law firm, and Randall Eng, of counsel at Meyer Suozzi, English & Klein in Garden City, and a retired presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department.

The case was primed for trial in 2015 when Johnson issued an order indicating that she would not disqualify Wang even if the co-executors proved that the marriage had been the result of undue influence, which is distinct from mental capacity. The co-executors appealed and won and the case was sent back to the Surrogate’s Court for trial.

In his 2018 decision, Ingram said that the record was “replete with credible evidence” that Berk “suffered from both physical and mental impairments.”

Dismayed at Ingram’s ruling, Weitberg told the New York Law Journal that Wang’s legal team would appeal it.

Husband-and-wife attorneys

Both Baquet and Farinacci initially worked at Jaspan Schlesinger, where the Berk siblings were clients. In 2011, Farinacci moved to Ruskin Moscou and the Berk brothers kept both firms as counsel so that Farinacci and Baquet would continue to represent them.

That co-counsel arrangement is not necessarily uncommon – especially with big cases, Farinacci said.

The two firms “operate in the same market,” he said. “You can say we’re competitors, but both of us had full backing of the firms to do this together in an extremely cooperative way. Your duty is to your client.”

With the case tried in Brooklyn, Baquet and Farinacci, who live on Long Island, spent most nights of the trial in a hotel across from the courthouse. During the week, Baquet’s mother watched the couple’s children. The family was together on weekends.

The hotel staff got to know Baquet and Farinacci. And the judge and opposing counsel knew they were married.

“We didn’t want to appear we were hiding it,” Farinacci said.

They lived and breathed the trial, sharing ideas in the middle of the night, playing on each other’s strengths in the courtroom.

It was an intense several months – time they’ll always remember.

”We learned a lot from each other,” Baquet said.

Click here to read the article on at LIBN

 

 


Richard Fromewick Featured in LIBN’s Who’s Who in Real Property & Tax Certiorari Law

Richard G. Fromewick is chair of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C.’s Tax Certiorari and Condemnation practice located in Garden City, which centers on providing a full range of real estate tax assessment services. These include representation with respect to all types of commercial and residential properties in tax assessment reduction proceedings, projection of real estate taxes in connection with the purchase, development, and improvement of properties, and advising with respect to tax exemption matters.

Fromewick has successfully represented at trial numerous owners and tenants in proceedings to reduce real property taxes and regarding claims against the State of New York and its municipalities based on the taking of land or other real property rights. He has handled a substantial number of tax certiorari cases involving large commercial properties that have remediation/pollution problems, which have resulted in sizable refunds for his clients. His expertise in the field has resulted in precedent-setting decisions in his clients’ favor.

Obtaining direct information of individual neighborhoods allows Fromewick to gain a clear-cut knowledge of the region he serves.

“Long Island has so many distinct neighborhoods that while some thrive others are beset with retail and office vacancies,” he said. “Getting out in the field to experience first-hand the extent of the vacancies is the only way to truly understand and then explain to the assessors why some properties are over-assessed.”

Fromewick, who joined Meyer, Suozzi as an associate in 1981 and became a director in 1985, has been a member of the firm’s Management Committee since 1991.

He has been recognized for his expertise, including being recognized as one of the region’s “Top Legal Eagles” by Long Island Pulse magazine in 2010, 2011 and 2012. For over 25 years, Fromewick has been rated “AV Preeminent” by Martindale-Hubbell, the highest level in professional excellence.

Prior to joining Meyer, Suozzi, Fromewick was a deputy county attorney in the Land Division and Deputy Bureau Chief in the Tax Certiorari Bureau of the Nassau County Attorney’s Office. Earlier in his career, he was an assistant corporation counsel in the New York City Law Department Condemnation Division, where he also served as assistant bureau chief and trial supervisor.

Fromewick earned a juris doctor from Brooklyn Law School and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Hunter College of the City University of New York.

In addition to his law-related memberships, Fromewick is a member of the Spartan and Guiding Light Masonic Lodges, a member of the Long Island Scottish Rite, and a member of the Kismet Shrine Temple.

Fromewick is an ambassador of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a member of the UJA Joint Oceanside Committee. He is also trustee of Temple Avodah in Oceanside and is corresponding secretary on the Executive Board of Directors of the Barry and Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center (JCC), as well as a founding member of the Sunrise Day Camp for Kids with Cancer.

Founded in 1960, Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. provides legal services with a reputation for integrity, insight and excellent client service. Its attorneys are recognized for their committed to clients, community, public affairs, and diversity. With offices in Albany, Garden City, Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the firm provides legal advice in 18 practice areas.

 


Hon. Randall Eng. Featured in St. John’s University School of Law Program

On August 12th, 2018, St. John’s University School of Law held their New Student Convocation in which Hon. Randall Eng was mentioned during their Professionalism Oath.

Hon. Randall T. Eng, ’72
Justice Randall T. Eng is Of Counsel to Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, PC., where he is a member of the firm’s Litigation Department and also serves within its Alternative Dispute Resolution practice. Born in Canton, China, Justice Eng was raised in New York City and earned his undergraduate degree from SUNY Buffalo before attending St. John’s Law. From 1970 to 2004, he served as a member of the New York
Army National Guard, retiring as State Judge Advocate with the rank of colonel. When he began his storied public service career as an Assistant District Attorney in Queens, he was the first Asian American ADA in New York State history. Justice Eng continued his pioneering public service in top leadership positions as the Inspector General of the New York City Department of Correction, and, in 1983, he became the first Asian American judge in New York State when he was appointed to the Criminal Court of the City of New York. Starting in 1991, he presided in Supreme Court, Queens County until he was elevated to the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department in 2008. When Governor Andrew M. Cuomo appointed him to lead the Second Department in 2012, Justice Eng became the first Asian American to serve as Presiding Justice in New York’s Appellate Division. In addition to his many contributions to the bench and bar. Justice Eng enhances the life of St. John’s Law in immeasurable ways. He received the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Veteran Alumni Award in 2010 and, two years later, he was honored by the Law School’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association. Justice Eng was also an adjunct professor at the Law School from 1997-2001 and was the Commencement speaker in 2016 when he received an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree.


Lois Schlissel Quoted in LIBN’s, “Epic Impact on Class Actions”

In a sign that the pendulum may be swinging away from Obama-era protections for employees, the U.S. Supreme Court in May upheld that employers could require employees to resolve employment-related disputes through arbitration and preclude them from participating in class actions.

The case, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis involved a healthcare software company based in Wisconsin, which required employees to resolve any employment-based disputes with the company through individual arbitration and to waive their right to participate in or benefit from class action. A former employee, technical writer Jacob Lewis, sued Epic in U.S. District Court as a class action, claiming the company had denied him and other technical writers overtime pay owed to them. Epic, citing the waiver clause, attempted to have the suit dismissed.

The lower court ruled that the waiver was unenforceable because it violated the right of employees to engage in concerted activities under the National Labor Relations Act, but the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, sided with Epic.

“The decision is huge because now employees can’t join a collective or class action [when such an agreement is in place],” said Jonathan Farrell, partner and co-chair of the labor and employment law practice group at Meltzer Lippe in Mineola.

The bottom line of the Epic ruling, according to Meyer Suozzi member Lois Carter Schlissel, is that “employers and employees can enter into mandatory arbitration agreements whereby they agree to use arbitration for disputes related to employment, ranging from sexual harassment to discrimination to wage-and-hour matters, and it will be done on an individual basis.” Schlissel, who is based in Garden City, leads Meyer Suozzi’s employment law practice and is an active member of the firm’s commercial litigation and dispute resolution department.

Class actions are particularly prevalent in wage-and-hour disputes, such as when a group of employees is misclassified as exempt and therefore denied overtime that they are entitled to, or when they are paid less than minimum wage. Because an individual wage-and-hour case will typically involve a relatively small amount of money, plaintiff’s attorneys often will not take them on. But if a group of workers unites to bring a class action against the employer, the dollar amounts could rise into the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.

Howard Miller: The waiver is especially important in situations where there is some argument over whether employees could be classified as exempt or non-exempt. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

“Class actions were meant as a vehicle in which people who were not in a position to go toe to toe with a big company would be able to get money that’s owed to them,” Howard Miller, a member in the labor and employment practice in Bond Schoeneck & King’s Garden City office, said. “But unfortunately in some circumstances, they’re used to coerce settlements when an employer has done nothing wrong. As with every other thing that was well-intended, it could be subject to abuse.”

Mandatory arbitration agreements are not a new concept, Schlissel said, noting that the courts have regularly enforced such agreements.

“Part of the reason for this is that the long-standing Federal Arbitration Act says arbitration agreements calling for mandatory arbitration on an individual basis are to be enforced,” she said, though noting there are exceptions. For instance, if an employee went to court claiming the arbitration agreement was unconscionable, then the court would take a look and make a determination.

“Let’s say the agreement was tucked away in the back of a handbook, in small print and never brought to anyone’s attention,” Schlissel said. “Then there could be a question about whether it’s unconscionable.”

Since courts have long enforced arbitration waivers, what’s all the excitement about the Epic case?

“The answer relates to class actions,” Schlissel said. “In 2012, the National Labor Relations Board – a federal agency responsible for enforcing federal labor laws – ruled that arbitration agreements that require employees to waive the right to participate in class actions were unlawful.”

The long-standing National Labor Relations Act says laborers have the right to band together, bargain collectively and join unions – to participate in “concerted activities” – to help balance the negotiating power between an individual employee and an employer.

“The NLRB said requiring employees to waive the right to participate in class actions was like saying employees had to go it alone – with regard particularly to wage-and-hour claims – and they shouldn’t be forced to do that, because the NLRB protects concerted activities,” Schlissel said.

Following that 2012 ruling, “some courts in the country deferred to it, while some ruled that it was incorrect [because of the Federal Arbitration Act], so there was a split among the lower courts,” Schlissel said. “So in the Epic case, the Supreme Court majority disagreed with the NLRB on the long-standing Labor Relations Act, saying while it protects workers’ rights to participate in concerted activity like joining unions and bargaining collectively, it doesn’t apply to class actions.”

The best thing for employers to do at this juncture, Schlissel said, is to consider whether mandatory arbitration is right for their workplace and business.

“In considering that question, it would be important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of mandatory arbitration,” Schlissel said.

One advantage is confidentiality, she said.

“When a case goes to court, everything that’s filed can in most cases be accessed by the public and media,” she said. “Confidentiality is a benefit of arbitration.”

Arbitration is also far more expeditious, since it’s a streamlined process, and it’s usually (but not always) less costly, she said.

But Farrell cautions “companies that think arbitration is a panacea” should remember that there is a cost, and it can be significant.

“It could cost employers $15,000 to $50,000 a case,” he said.

Even when there is an arbitration agreement in place, employees can still file a claim against the employer with the Department of Labor, Miller said.

“My concern is employees who may or may not be aware of their rights and a company being able to take advantage of that,” Miller said. “I think most employers play by the rules but there are some that don’t. But if I was an unscrupulous employer, I would be kidding myself to think that once I have a class action waiver in hand that I could go about violating the law. Maybe the plaintiff’s side will have to make more of an effort to round up individuals, but there’s still the risk for multiple arbitrations for violating the wage-and-hour rules.”

Companies that choose to go with an arbitration policy should roll it out carefully in consultation with their attorney, Miller said.

“When there is some argument over whether employees could be classified as exempt or non-exempt, it would be helpful to have the waiver,” he said. “The big ticket is wage-and-hour class actions – they’re gold mines for the plaintiff’s bar.”

For companies “with hourly employees who are clearly getting overtime and who are paid above minimum wage,” there’s not much risk of a class-action wage-and-hour case, Farrell said. But for companies in the restaurant or home healthcare industries – where there are often disputes about tip credits and hours worked, respectively – having a mandatory arbitration agreement in place is key, he said.

A potential drawback of arbitration agreements is backlash from employees, Schlissel said. While it’s relatively clear-cut to present a new employee with an agreement prior to or on the first day of employment, existing employees may not appreciate being told they now are subject to the policy.

“It is key to give ample notice and meet with employees to make sure they have a clear understanding of the program before initiating it,” Schlissel said. “New York does not require employee signatures but I would recommend getting employees to sign a document, so the employer won’t be put in a position where they are defending whether the agreement is unconscionable. Employees should also be given a copy of the agreement.”

Employers who decide it’s a good fit for them “should first develop the contours of a dispute resolution program,” Schlissel said. “It should include pre-arbitration mechanisms to dissolve disputes. Employers who are going this route may decide there are ways to address employee concerns without going to formal arbitration. This could be as simple as an open door policy to something slightly more formal, such as appointing an ombudsman in the company to help resolve problems. It could specify that problems would go to mediation, which is not as formal as arbitration and brings parties together before a mediator, who tries to facilitate a resolution. It may sound like a lot of work but the real advantage to pre-arbitration mechanisms is they are much quicker, less costly and can bring parties together for the advantage of both.”

This process could also provide an avenue for the resolution of employee concerns that do not rise to the legal level, she said.

The arbitration agreement should designate the organization that is going to be used to administer the arbitration, and it should address allocation of arbitration fees, all or most of which are typically assigned to the employer, she said. It should also specify which employees and what kinds of claims are covered.


Irwin Bluestein Included in the Best Lawyers in America 2019

Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein P.C. is pleased to announce that Irwin Bluestein, a Shareholder in the Firm’s Labor and Employment practice groups, was recently selected by his peers for inclusion in the 25th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® in the field of Labor and Employment Law.

First published in 1983, Best Lawyers in America is based on an exhaustive annual peer-review survey. It compiles lists of outstanding attorneys through confidential surveys of leading lawyers. For the new U.S. edition, more than 50 percent of the lawyers listed in the previous year’s edition cast more than 3.1 million votes reflecting their assessment of the legal abilities of other lawyers in the same and related specialties.


Seth B. Kennedy Joins Meyer Suozzi’s Labor & Employee Benefits/ERISA Law Practice Group

July 9, 2018 (New York City) – Meyer Suozzi is pleased to announce the addition of Seth B. Kennedy to their roster of attorneys.

Mr. Kennedy has joined the firm’s Labor & Employee Benefits / ERISA Law group and will be a resident in the New York City office. Mr. Kennedy’s practice focuses on working with the labor and employment department representing union clients and jointly trusted fringe funds.

“We are proud to welcome Seth to our firm,” said Patricia Galteri, Managing Attorney of Meyer Suozzi. “Hiring experienced and talented attorneys is key to Meyer Suozzi’s continued ability to provide quality, comprehensive representation for all of our clients in New York City, Long Island, and nationally.”

Prior to joining Meyer Suozzi, Mr. Kennedy was an Associate Counsel at AFSCME District Council 37 Health & Security Plan Trust in New York City.

Mr. Kennedy, a New Jersey resident received his J.D. from Chicago-Kent College of Law graduating with honors. While in Law School, he was a Research Assistant for the Chicago-Kent of Law Institute for Law in the Workplace. Mr. Kennedy was also President of the Labor and Employment Law Society.  Also, he was a Student Editor for the Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal. He is admitted to practice Law in both the State of New York and the State of New Jersey.

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About Meyer Suozzi

Founded in 1960, Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. is a distinguished provider of legal services, with a reputation for integrity, insight and excellent client service. The firm’s attorneys are committed to their clients, community, public affairs, and diversity. With offices in Albany, Garden City, Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the firm provides legal advice in 18 practice areas. The firm can be found online at www.msek.com.


Hon. Ira Warshawsky Named 2018 ADR Champion by The National Law Journal

On June 1, only 46 ADR Champions were selected from hundreds of nominations received throughout the United States, with each nominee carefully vetted by the business arm of The National Law Journal. Those chosen have distinguished themselves in the field of arbitration and mediation, each having an abiding passion for, and deep commitment to, the practice of ADR — with a remarkable track record of success. It is an exemplary list of the finest leaders and neutrals in the United States with each honoree continuing to make their mark in ADR.

HON. IRA B. WARSHAWSKY, J.S.C (RET.)
Justice of the Supreme Court, Nassau

CHAMPIONSHIP PEDIGREE
Ira Warshawsky served on the bench for 25 years. “When I finished in 2011, I was still young enough to do more in the area of settling cases. I hated to see cases not settled when they should be and money left on the table. Mediation is now my primary focus, and arbitration is the next best thing to being a judge.”

EXPERIENCE & EXPERTISE
Warshawsky now works as a neutral overseeing cases throughout the New York metropolitan area. “One of my biggest matters was a massive construction case. It came before me as a Judge, and they had already used a well-known mediator. A year after I heard the case on the bench, some of the parties asked me to give mediating a shot. There were 22 or 23 parties involved, so I decided to do something different and break it up into pieces. First, I met with plaintiffs, then primary defendants, then subcontractors, then in slightly larger groups. Eventually, it settled.” At NAM, he has also worked with co-arbitrators around the country. “That includes some with massive infighting that required Daubert rulings, even though most arbitrators don’t want to do Daubert rulings.”

FUTURE VISION
ADR must consist of mediation first and arbitration second.”Everyone is writing arbitration clauses, and the quality is getting better. The goal of clauses should be cost efficiency and speed. Parties must consider venue, choice of law and ESI. You cannot escape ESI.” E-mediators will also mediate e-discovery for ADR and litigation. “If the parties hit a wall with the ESI portion, each side should have in-house counsel, outside counsel and an IT person at a meet and confer with a protocol to follow. The general counsel is the first step to a less expensive future in ADR use.”

 

Click here to view PDF in National Law Journal (page 26/27)


Richard Guay’s Victory on Behalf of NYC Public High School Principal was Featured on the Front Page of New York Times

When Nadav Zeimer became principal in 2010 of Harlem Renaissance High School, the school, which serves students who have fallen behind or dropped out of other schools, was failing. It had received a D on its most recent report card. At one point, New York City said it planned to close Harlem Renaissance and reopen it under a new name.

But within three years, the school’s grade went to a B, then an A. Its graduation rate improved; suspensions plummeted.

As Mr. Zeimer’s supervisor would say, last year, “Principal Zeimer has turned a failing school into a successful school.”

Which made it strange that, at that very moment, the city was trying to fire him.

As Mr. Zeimer worked to remake the school, he said, a small group of teachers revolted. He became the subject of multiple investigations and unflattering news stories, and lost his position — only to subsequently be cleared of most of the charges.

Mr. Zeimer’s story has become a familiar one at some of the city’s most troubled schools. Principals are asked by the Education Department to do one of the hardest jobs — turn around a failing school — in most cases without replacing the staff. Soon they become the target of investigations, often prompted by anonymous allegations, which can range from claims of discrimination to grade-fixing or fraud. As the inquiries mount, the principals’ time and energy are consumed by fighting them, and, they say, the Education Department does not back them up.

Some principals resign or are removed for seemingly minor violations. Santiago Taveras, who took over the faltering DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, was removed in 2016 and subsequently demoted after an investigation found that he had changed grades for three students without following proper procedures — a violation that many observers thought did not justify removal.

And at least two principals who have been taken out of their schools — Mr. Zeimer and Kathleen Elvin, who was removed as principal of John Dewey High School in Brooklyn in 2015 — were later exonerated by arbitrators of all or most of the charges.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the president of Bank Street College of Education and a deputy chancellor during the Bloomberg administration, said a trend of teachers accusing administrators of misconduct took off during that era. “It has something to do with people realizing that it was a tool that could be used as a weapon inside schools,” he said, noting that principals also used investigations against teachers.

“Once that weapon became recognized and people understood it,” he said, “I think it got used more often.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, seemed to acknowledge the problem recently when he spoke of a “hyper-complaint dynamic” at the Education Department, saying that “on many fronts, we get a certain number of complaints that are not real.”

From 2007 to 2017 the number of complaints made annually against principals and assistant principals to the Special Commissioner of Investigation, one of the two main entities that carry out investigations in the schools, more than doubled, to 1,671 from 740. The biggest increases occurred from 2009 to 2014.

The Special Commissioner’s office typically investigated only 100 to 200 of those complaints a year, while referring many more to the Education Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which generally handles more minor complaints. In 2017, for example, the Special Commissioner’s office referred 1,184 complaints to the Office of Special Investigations. The Education Department said it could not say how many of those complaints were investigated.

Certainly, some administrators do commit serious misconduct, like the principal of a Bronx middle school who the Special Commissioner’s office found had stolen more than $20,000 from his school’s bank account.

But the city’s investigative process itself can be Kafkaesque: Investigations can be prompted by anonymous complaints. Principals say that in some cases they are not told clearly what the charges are, making it hard to mount a defense. In December, Mr. Zeimer received notice from the Office of Special Investigations that a case against him had been closed. When he asked the nature of the allegations, he was told that the office couldn’t say.

Many principals chafed under the administration of the former school's chancellor, Carmen Fariña, whom they saw as watering down their authority. Ernest Logan, the former head of the principals’ union, said that under the Bloomberg administration officials at the Education Department sometimes gave principals who faced complaints the benefit of the doubt because they understood “the need to make some noise, to shake up people.” Under Mr. de Blasio, who has a much closer relationship with the teachers’ union, Mr. Logan said, the Education Department just “wanted the noise to go away.” Whether that will change under the new chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, who replaced Ms. Fariña in April, is an open question.

The current senior supervising superintendent at the Education Department, Laura Feijoo, said that there were “countless examples” of the department’s supporting principals in difficult situations and that Mr. Zeimer, Ms. Elvin, and Mr. Taveras had been removed because of serious misconduct.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers’ union, said those three principals “were the agents of their own demise,” citing “their lack of ability to work with other adults” and to “realize that, as a leader, your job is to lead, not to dictate and punish.”

But people, including Mr. Polakow-Suransky, who are concerned that investigations can be weaponized against administrators, said that knowing that an anonymous allegation can lead to their removal makes principals feel vulnerable and discourages them from trying to remove low-performing teachers.

“It has a chilling effect on people taking on mediocre and ineffective teaching practices,” said Kim Marshall, the author of the Marshall Memo, a weekly newsletter about education, who has coached New York City principals, including Ms. Elvin. Principals want to know whether the department will have their backs if they hold teachers accountable, Mr. Marshall explained. In the wake of cases like these, he said, “I would think, absolutely, the answer to that is no.”

‘Not Every Rule Rises’

Ms. Elvin and Mr. Taveras took over schools that were among the lowest performing in the state and under threat of closing. As they tried to turn their schools around, the principals said, they were pushing teachers to work harder and holding them accountable. After the city put in place a new teacher evaluation system in 2013-14, the share of teachers at the three schools who received low ratings was significantly higher than in the city as a whole.

The teachers’ union said the principals were abusing their power and retaliating against anyone who questioned them.

When Mr. Taveras started at DeWitt Clinton in 2013, the school had received F’s on its two most recent report cards and its enrollment was plummeting. As enrollment fell, many teachers were no longer needed, and Mr. Taveras said he also sought to remove teachers who were shirking their duties.

Soon he was being dogged by investigations. He was investigated by both the Special Commissioner of Investigation and the Office of Special Investigations about a makeshift shower that he had installed and paid for himself to use in the morning after exercising.

In 2014, DeWitt Clinton became part of Mr. de Blasio’s Renewal school program, aimed at turning around low-performing schools.

The next year, Mr. Taveras asked the office overseeing Renewal for help addressing problems he had discovered related to how students were assigned to classes, which had led some students to be scheduled for the same class twice, he said. He told the official sent to meet with him that in prior years he had given students elective credit for the duplicate courses, rather than punishing them for administrators’ mistakes. He asked her to conduct an audit of the school’s transcripts to identify all of the problems.

Instead, she contacted the Special Commissioner of Investigation to report that Mr. Taveras had changed course codes on student transcripts.

A few months later, investigators received a package from an anonymous source containing student transcripts and attendance records from DeWitt Clinton, which showed that, in a separate violation of the rules, Mr. Taveras had changed grades for three students, out of the school’s nearly 1,700 enrollment, to passing from failing. (School staff members also appear to have shared some of the documents with The New York Post.)

In one case, the student had a medical condition that she told investigators caused her to miss a lot of school. She said her Global History teacher had reneged on an agreement to give her a passing grade if she completed a supplemental assignment packet and passed the Regents exam, and instead gave her a grade of “No Show.” Mr. Taveras told investigators that over the summer he emailed the Global History teacher, as well as the student’s physical education teacher, who had also given her a failing grade, asking them to review the grades. But they did not respond, he said, so he changed the grades to passing himself.

The grade changes went against department policy. But, said Eric Nadelstern, another deputy chancellor from the Bloomberg years: “There are rules, and there are rules. Not every rule rises to the level of needing to remove a principal.” Nor is there any evidence that the grade changes were an effort to fraudulently boost the school’s results since changing grades for three students would not significantly affect the school’s graduation rate — a key metric used by the Education Department to judge whether a school is making progress. Nonetheless, the department removed Mr. Taveras and threatened him with termination.

Mr. Taveras had been one of the few principals to publicly criticize the Renewal initiative, saying that administrators and teachers were being pulled out of their schools too often for meetings and training.

Mr. Taveras now works in the Bronx field support office, advising schools that have increases in disciplinary incidents.

He said he suspected the reason he was dealt with so harshly was that he was “on the top of the list” of principals that the teachers’ union wanted gone.

During the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he had been a deputy chancellor, and, he said, department higher-ups would meet monthly with officials from the teachers’ union, who would bring a list of principals they felt were not being fair to their members. (Mr. Polakow-Suransky confirmed that Bloomberg administration officials had regular consultations with the union, where the union raised concerns about principals, among other issues.)

Dr. Feijoo said Mr. Taveras had been removed because he violated academic policy and because his superintendent had concerns about his leadership. A spokeswoman for the department said his criticism of the Renewal program played no role.

Mr. Mulgrew said Mr. Taveras had failed at his job and lost the trust of his staff.

However, Mr. Taveras shared two emails from his superintendent, Carron Staple, from October 2016, less than two months before he was removed, which seemed to contradict Dr. Feijoo’s account. In the emails, Ms. Staple called him “an excellent leader,” strategized about how to get the department’s support to get “some of the dead weight out of the school,” and urged him not to be demoralized by the investigations.

“You are doing a great job so do not despair,” she wrote.

Trying to Change the Culture

Ms. Elvin was a seasoned administrator who had founded a successful school in Williamsburg and was past retirement age when she accepted the challenge of turning Dewey around in 2012.

Opened in 1969, Dewey had once been renowned as a model progressive high school, but over time it struggled. When Ms. Elvin took over, the Bloomberg administration planned to close and reopen it, replacing half the teachers. But a grievance by the teachers’ and principals’ unions put a halt to those plans, and Ms. Elvin was left with the existing staff.

When she arrived, she said in a series of recent interviews, she found almost all aspects of the school’s operation to be dysfunctional.

Emily Creveling, whom Ms. Elvin brought in as an assistant principal, said, “Aside from having a culture of no accountability, I think there was also a culture of, ‘If the students are failing, it’s their fault.’”

Under Ms. Elvin, administrators observed teachers frequently, reviewed lesson plans and held after-school sessions on improving teaching. Halfway through each marking period, they required teachers to report how many of their students were failing and why, what interventions they had tried, and what additional support students needed to succeed. Through these efforts and others, the school’s graduation rate improved and applications increased.

The administration also gave a significant number of teachers low ratings. In 2013-14, just 1 percent of teachers in the city’s school system overall received a rating of “ineffective,” the lowest category, and 7 percent got a rating of “developing,” the second lowest. At Dewey that year, 16 percent of teachers were rated “ineffective,” and 35 percent were “developing.” Using a provision of a new contract negotiated with the de Blasio administration, the teachers’ union challenged many of the ineffective ratings as reflecting harassment.

At the same time, a series of complaints were made against Ms. Elvin, which prompted numerous investigations. Ms. Elvin estimated she faced at least 20 investigations, including one based on an anonymous, and inaccurate, allegation that Ms. Creveling was her niece.

In 2014, the Office of Special Investigations began reviewing a cluster of mostly anonymous complaints of academic violations by the administrators, including charges that they had pressured teachers to give passing grades and allowed students to make up credits with courses that did not meet the department’s standards. Meanwhile, teachers, mostly anonymously, drove coverage of an alleged grade-fixing scandal in the press.

Not all of the teachers at Dewey opposed Ms. Elvin. A social studies teacher named Chung Chan emailed Ms. Fariña in June 2015 to express distress about what was happening. He described Ms. Elvin as a “godsend” for the struggling school. “She raised the standard appreciably and restored a ray of hope among us, but understandably, she also became a lightning rod attracting the ire” of some teachers, he wrote.

Around the same time, Ms. Fariña was asked by a reporter about the status of the investigation and said, “So far, the majority of things, in this case, have been unsubstantiated.”

Then, something changed. On July 8, the Education Department said investigators had found Ms. Elvin guilty of allowing students to earn credit for classes that did not meet academic standards. Ms. Fariña said in a statement that the department had begun the process to fire Ms. Elvin and that she would be removed from payroll.

Ms. Elvin fought her termination, and, the following spring, an arbitrator dismissed all of the charges against her, saying that the Education Department had subsequently validated the disputed credits. The arbitrator ruled that Ms. Elvin should be immediately reinstated and that the department should pay her the wages and benefits she had lost. The department said it was disappointed with the decision.

The day after the arbitrator’s decision became public, Michael Solo, the school’s teachers union chapter leader, sent a letter to the rest of the staff members saying that Ms. Elvin had gotten off on “a technicality” and assuring them that she would never come back to Dewey.

And she has not. Instead, she sits in an office in Brooklyn, ostensibly working with five truancy sites, though she says she feels she has been warehoused.

In March, the state Education Department released an audit of credit recovery and make up courses at Dewey during Ms. Elvin’s tenure that, like the city’s investigation, concluded that many students received credits that they should not have. But the audit appeared to contradict the city’s investigation on key issues, such as whether certain courses met for the mandated number of hours; the city said yes, the state said no. The auditors also spoke only to current administrators at Dewey, Mr. Solo, and officials from the Education Department and the mayor’s office. They did not interview Ms. Elvin or the other administrators who were responsible for the programs under review.

In an email, Mr. Solo said the state Education Department audit “substantiated what the faculty of John Dewey High School had been saying all along.”

“Ms. Elvin was not removed from John Dewey High School because she violated the contract and feuded with the U.F.T.,” he wrote.

Ms. Elvin said that rebuilding a troubled school without being able to remove ineffective teachers in a timely way all but guaranteed a backlash. It takes years of observation and documentation to begin the process of removing a tenured teacher for incompetence. “People are doing their level-best under incredibly challenging situations,” Ms. Elvin said of her efforts to turn Dewey around.

But, she said, “I just don’t think this is in the best interest of kids for people to be afraid to do their jobs.”

A School Divided

The trouble for Mr. Zeimer began in 2015 when he tried to remove a teacher named Catherine Owens. Ms. Owens, who taught Spanish, was smart and charismatic, Mr. Zeimer said in a recent interview, but she was frequently late to school and rarely had a lesson plan.

“I’d come in and she’d be shopping for shoes, and kids would be coloring,” he said. In early 2015, the Education Department brought disciplinary charges against her, and Ms. Owens was reassigned to another school. Then, in December, partway through the hearing process, the department dropped the charges, and in early 2016 Ms. Owens came back to Harlem Renaissance.

Her return coincided with a sharp change in the atmosphere, according to several staff members who testified in Mr. Zeimer’s disciplinary case. Some teachers celebrated her return as a victory over Mr. Zeimer, while others were discouraged, including Anne Palacci, an English and art teacher, who testified that it seemed to embolden a faction of teachers who were resistant to working hard.

An official from the teachers’ union, Patricia Crispino, began to appear at the school regularly, and what had been a collaborative atmosphere became combative and fractured, according to Ms. Palacci and other staff members who testified.

Ms. Crispino, in an email, said that union members at the school had become concerned over time about Mr. Zeimer’s behavior toward students and staff members, in particular, Ms. Owens, to whom he was “vindictive and unprofessional.”

After Ms. Owens’s return, Mr. Zeimer’s superintendent, Paul Rotondo, said in his testimony, he had warned Mr. Zeimer to be especially careful. “It’s a contentious situation in which the union is going to be watching every step you take,” Mr. Rotondo said that he told Mr. Zeimer, adding “the minute you step out of line, I’m going to get a phone call.”

Around this time, Mr. Rotondo began receiving many phone calls from Ms. Crispino, he testified. Ms. Crispino told Mr. Rotondo that Mr. Zeimer was allowing his wife to volunteer at the school without authorization. Soon the Office of Special Investigations began an inquiry. Ms. Owens alleged that Mr. Zeimer was breaking another rule: serving on the board of directors of the Friends of Harlem Renaissance, a nonprofit that he had helped set up to raise private funds to support the school. That, too, was soon under investigation. Ms. Owens also accused Mr. Zeimer of violating privacy laws by using photographs of students on the nonprofit’s website without proper permission. A third investigation was started.

On Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, Mr. Rotondo showed up at Harlem Renaissance and told Mr. Zeimer to gather his belongings — he was being immediately reassigned.

In May, the Office of Special Investigations released a report substantiating the charges made by Ms. Crispino and Ms. Owens: Mr. Zeimer had violated conflict of interest laws by serving on the nonprofit’s board, had failed to properly secure permission to use students’ names and photographs on the group’s website, and had allowed his wife to volunteer at the school without proper clearance.

In June, the department started the legal process required to terminate Mr. Zeimer, and he was removed from the payroll. There were a total of 24 charges, including that Mr. Zeimer had “participated in the preliminary hiring process of his wife without a conflict of interest waiver” — she had been an unpaid volunteer — and that he had “knowingly acted in a manner likely to be injurious to the physical, mental or moral welfare of a child.”

The hearings in his case stretched over eight days from August to October. At them, several staff members praised his leadership and described what they perceived as Ms. Owens’s and Ms. Crispino’s desire to see him removed. (In an email, Ms. Owens’s lawyer, Matthew I. Marks, said that his client denied shopping for shoes during work hours and said that, while Ms. Owens “complained about the discriminatory treatment to which she was subjected,” she did not try to have Mr. Zeimer fired.)

Earl Gray, a community coordinator at the school, testified that Ms. Crispino had taken credit for Mr. Zeimer’s removal, telling staff members, “Well, I am here to get rid of principals.” (Ms. Crispino, in her email, denied saying this.)

“It was very disheartening for me,” Mr. Gray said, adding that the “whole experience has been totally toxic.”

Some of the strongest testimony in support of Mr. Zeimer came from Mr. Rotondo, even though he appeared as a witness for the department. Asked by Mr. Zeimer’s lawyer from the principals’ union how Mr. Zeimer had succeeded in turning the school around, Mr. Rotondo said: “I think he had the ability to be able to build a community of like-minded folks who saw educating our students as the priority.”

“Honestly, there have been sometimes where there may have been some poor judgment calls when it comes to dealing with various rules and regulations,” he added, “but I don’t ever question his intention for the children.”

In her ruling, issued in December, the arbitrator said that the department had met its burden of proof for only two charges out of the 24 and that Mr. Zeimer should be reinstated as principal of Harlem Renaissance High School. Mr. Zeimer has filed a petition in state court seeking to force the city to comply with the arbitrator’s decision.

For now, instead of leading a school, he is working in an office in Brooklyn, processing applications for medical leave.

“It’s been over a year that I have not been working with kids,” he lamented in an email in March. “This is not what I signed up for as an educator.”

 

Click here for the article in the New York Times


Patricia Galteri Featured in The New York Community Trust, “Attorney’s Advice: Stretching Every Charitable Dollar”

“Nearly 20 years ago, my law partner introduced me to The New York Community Trust and its division, the Long Island Community Foundation (LICF). I found a top-notch organization that could assist my clients with charitable giving, even with finding the right nonprofits.

I tell clients that creating a private foundation requires a lot of administrative work. Instead, a donor-advised fund in either The Trust or LICF lets them achieve their goals, from helping disabled children to assisting people with impaired vision, or focusing on improving a particular community.

I joined the LICF board in 2008, then became the chair. We stretch donors’ dollars by working with other funders in efforts like preserving Long Island Sound or addressing the opioid crisis. We make charitable giving easy, meaningful, and powerful.”

The managing attorney of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C., in Garden City, Long Island, Patricia Galteri also chairs the Long Island Community Foundation.

Click here to view the article on The New York Community Trust

Photo credit: Ari Mintz for The Trust