Judge Dismisses Bruce Karam’s Petition Against Utica School District
A Supreme Court Judge in Oneida County has dismissed a case brought against the Utica School District by its current Superintendent, Bruce Karam, who is on paid administrative leave.
Karam sued the district after the board placed him on administrative leave with pay, pending an "investigation into complaints of pervasive discriminatory behavior." Karam petitioned the court, claiming the district violated his contract and violated Open Meetings Law when they placed him on leave, and asked the court to judicially annul the decision by the board.
Supreme Court Judge Scott J. Delconte disagreed in a decision handed down Monday afternoon when he sided with the school district and dismissed Karam's petition, with prejudice and on the merits.
According to the decision, "the investigation into Karam's workplace behavior began on September 29,2022, when a formal complaint was filed by the District's Chief Operations Officer. After receiving a copy of the COO's complaint, Board President (Joseph) Hobika contacted the Labor Relations & Policy Office of the Madison-Oneida Board of cooperative Education Service ("BOCES"), which advised him - as did the Board's general counsel - that an independent workplace investigation was warranted. On october 6, 2022, the Board met in executive session, discussed the COO's accusations against Karam, and deliberated as to how to properly respond, including the possibility of suspending Karam and commencing an investigation."
According to Judge DelConte's decision, "shortly after that meeting, the Board was informed that an earlier discrimination complaint had also been filed against Karam in September by the District's Chief Financial Officer. That complaint similarly claimed that Karam was creating a hostile work environment by, among other things, making racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. Copies of both complaints were provided to Karam, and in an email on October 11, 2022, a special Board meeting was called for October 18, 2022 to address "contracts," "personnel," and "litigation".
According to the court, Hobika consulted with Dr. Patricia Kilbum, Superintendent of the Oneida-Herkimer- Madison BOCES, who told him that she would assist the Board in finding a competent individual to serve as acting superintendent in the event that Karam was placed on leave. "Dr. Kilbum also recommended that the Board promptly appoint independent outside legal counsel to assist with its investigation. She then contacted Brian Nolan, a former administrator in the Syracuse City School District who was working as an Independent Monitor in the New York State Education Department, and inquired if he would be available to serve as the District's acting superintendent, if needed." Nolan was later appointed acting Superintendent of Utica Schools by the Board of Education.
Delconte stated that Karam being placed on paid "administrative leave with pay" during which time an investigation is being conducted into complaints filed by employees of the district, "does not, without more, constitute an adverse employment action."
Karam had claimed that the action to place him on leave was a personal vendetta by Board President Joseph Hobika, and other board members. DelConte stated in his decision that while this claim might be personal between Karam and the board, it has very little to do with Open Meetings Law.
"Open Meetings Law - a statute designed to ensure transparency and prevent officials from shielding themselves from public scrutiny - and everything to do with the fact that he wants this Court to review, and respond to, his allegations of conspiracy and private animus by the Board members who voted to place him on administrative leave. Karam's grievance against those individuals is of a personal nature. however, and there is no redress for personal grievances under the Open Meetings Law," he said.
Karam's attorney, Giancarlo Facciponte, responded to WIBX's request for comment, by stating that Judge DelConte's decision on Monday does not affect Karam's federal case.
"This Article 78 proceeding did not pertain to Mr. Karam’s claims in tort, which are presently before the Northern District of New York. Despite what the individual respondents may claim during this campaign season as a result of Judge Del Conte’s decision, there has not been a finding by the Court related to any of Mr. Karam’s allegations of their individual liability, or the District’s liability regarding his claims where compensation would be due. The proceeding before Judge Del Conte sought only equitable relief, relief that does not require compensation, and was brought on issues fundamentally based on the District’s alleged violation of its duty to the public under the Open Meetings Law in the circumstance," said Facciponte.
Facciponte added that Karam has been subject to "media inquiry, rumor, and “leaks,” but he still has not been subject to any written charges of misconduct." He added that Karam "continues to be paid, as noted in the decision by the state court." He added that Judge DelConte’s decision, "even if allowed to stand on appeal and read in a light most favorable to the Board members, expressly does not absolve the District or the individual Defendants of liability regarding Mr. Karam’s tort claims."
Facciponte said that Karam is currently considering his appeal options related to Judge DelConte's decision, while his Federal matter continues.
WIBX has reached out to Board President Joe Hobika for comment, and is awaiting a response.