LINDEN – The state Supreme Court upheld an arbitrator’s determination that a Linden High School custodian was improperly fired for cleaning a classroom while it was being used as a changing area during a dance recital.
The Linden school board, represented by state Sen. Ray Lesniak’s law firm Weiner Lesniak, was attempting to overturn the arbitrator’s decision that a ten-day unpaid suspension was an appropriate punishment for the offense.
John Mizichko was working the night shift at the high school on May 5, 2005 and was assigned to clean classrooms. He had been informed that certain classrooms would be used as changing areas during a dance recital.
At one point, Mizichko entered a classroom where female students were changing and stayed long enough to clean glass panes on the door before obeying a teacher’s instruction to leave, according to court documents.
Mizichko said that he had cleaned other classrooms designated as changing areas and found them empty. He admitted encountering students in one area, but said that he was unaware that they were undressing, according to court documents.
After conducting an investigation, the Linden Board of Education voted to fire Mizichko. The Linden Education Association filed a grievance on his behalf, and the case went to arbitration. The arbitrator concluded that there was cause for discipline, but termination was too severe a penalty. The arbitrator imposed a ten-day suspension without pay.
The school board took the case to court to try to overturn the ruling, arguing that the arbitrator exceeded his authority. The Superior Court ruled in Mizichko’s favor, so the board appealed the decision at the Appellate Division level. The appeals court did rule in favor of the school board, but the state Supreme Court overturned that decision last week.
Critics argue that the case is symptomatic of government officials allowing high priced legal cases to proceed without merit in order to funnel money into the coffers of politically connected lawyers.
They also say wasteful spending on such lawsuits tends to obscure government faults and inaction rather than shine the kind of light on such errors that would invite public scrutiny.
Lesniak’s law firm collects more than $3 million annually from public entities, such as school districts, municipalities and local authorities. In addition to the Linden Board of Education, the firm represents school boards in Rahway and elsewhere.