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Castella v. Stewart

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

November 20, 2019

Diana Maria Castella, Appellant,
Pam Stewart, Commissioner of Education, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          An Appeal from the State of Florida, Education Practices Commission. EPC No. 16-0242-RT, DOAH Nos. 16-2492PL and PPS 145-3012

          Ana M. Davide, for appellant.

          Charles T. Whitelock (Ft. Lauderdale), for appellee.

          Before EMAS, C.J., and SALTER, and FERNANDEZ, JJ.

          FERNANDEZ, J.

         Diana Maria Castella, the respondent, appeals the Education Practices Commission's ("EPC") Final Order which suspends her Florida Educator's Certificate for three years, followed by two years' probation. We affirm the Final Order in all respects.

         The uncontested facts are that in 2015, Ms. Castella was employed by the Miami-Dade County School District as a part-time interventionist teacher at Brownsville Middle School ("BMS"). She held a Florida Educator's Certificate covering elementary education, which was valid through June 30, 2017, and had been a certified teacher in Florida for twenty-five years.

         On March 9, 2015, a sixth-grade student at the school, Y.H., informed Ms. Castella around 2:15 p.m., during a late lunch period, that her stepfather comes into her room at night, when her mother is not present, and lays on top of her with his clothes on without touching her in any inappropriate way. Y.H. told Ms. Castella that her mother knew about it but did not believe her. Ms. Castella did not immediately report Y.H.'s accusation on March 9, 2015 to DCF, nor to the Child Abuse Hotline.

         At about 2:30 pm when lunch ended, Ms. Castella went to her class, got the class settled, and then went up to Ms. Marilyn Philogene, her senior teacher, and told her what Y.H. had said. Ms. Philogene told her she had to go tell Ms. Sonya Durden, the school counselor. Ms. Castella waited until 3:50 pm at the end of the school day to go tell Ms. Durden, but Ms. Durden was not in her office. Ms. Castella then went home. Although Ms. Castella briefly discussed with other school personnel what Y.H. had told her, she did not immediately report Y.H.'s accusation to DCF or the Child Abuse Hotline that same day.

         The next day, when Ms. Castella arrived at school, she went to see Ms. Durden and reported what Y.H. had told her. Mrs. Durden sent Ms. Castella back to her classroom and told her to come back to her office in an hour so they could call DCF. An hour later, Ms. Castella went to Ms. Durden's office. Ms. Durden dialed DCF's phone number, and Ms. Castella made the report telephonically. When Ms. Castella was asked why she did not immediately report what Y.H. had told her, she said there was "nothing sexual to report." DCF then sent a DCF protective child investigator, Ms. Shalonda Sylvester, to the school to begin the investigation. During this investigation, Y.H. for the first time reported the sexual molestation by her stepfather. Ms. Sylvester then terminated the interview and called Miami-Dade County Police to take over the investigation. Thereafter, the investigation by the Miami-Dade County Sexual Crimes Unit led to the arrest and conviction of Y.H.'s stepfather, who is currently serving his prison sentence.

         The incident was reported on March 11, 2015, to the Office of Professional Standards for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which determined there was probable cause to believe that Ms. Castella had violated school board policies. Ms. Castella's part-time employment was terminated effective March 12, 2015 for lack of funding for the I-prep program, and the incident was reported to the EPC for further proceedings.

         The Commissioner of Education (COE) issued an Administrative Complaint on March 16, 2016, seeking a sanction against Ms. Castella's Florida Educator's Certificate and alleging a violation of section 1012.795(1)(b), Florida Statutes (2015), for knowingly failing to report actual or suspected child abuse. A case was opened at the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) on May 5, 2016 to conduct a formal hearing under section 120.57(1), Florida Statutes (2016), as Ms. Castella requested. On September 15, 2016, the COE amended the Administrative Complaint without objection. The Amended Administrative Complaint contained the same allegations as to Count 1 and added Counts 2-5. Count 2 alleged that Ms. Castella violated section 1012.795(1)(j), Florida Statutes (2015), because Ms. Castella violated the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession prescribed by State Board of Education rules. Count 3 alleged a violation of Florida Administrative Code, Rule 6A-10.081(3)(a), for failing to make reasonable efforts to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning and/or to the student's mental health and/or physical health and/or safety.[1]

         Ms. Castella disputed the allegations, filed her Answer on January 4, 2017, and requested a formal administrative hearing. The parties filed a Joint Prehearing Stipulation on January 6, 2017. In the Stipulation, the COE stated its position that Ms. Castella had a duty under section 39.201(2), Florida Statutes (2015), to immediately report what Y.H. told her to DCF's Abuse Hotline. Ms. Castella contended that she received no training in reporting student abuse or suspected abuse in all her years as a teacher and that no facts of sexual molestation were known by her or anyone until Ms. Sylvester was able to get Y.H. to reveal the information on March 10, 2015.

         On January 10, 2017, the formal hearing was held before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") of the DOAH. The COE presented the testimony of four witnesses: Carmen Gutierrez (District Director of the Office of Professional Standards for Miami-Dade County Public Schools), Ebony Dunn (BMS's principal), Ms. Durden, and Terri Chester (the investigator with the Civilian Investigative Unit for Miami-Dade County Public Schools). The COE also presented the testimony of Ms. Philogene, by way of deposition. Exhibits were admitted into evidence. Ms. Castella presented her own live testimony and her deposition testimony, as well as the deposition testimony of Ms. Sylvester and had exhibits admitted into evidence.

         The ALJ issued his Recommended Order on March 17, 2017. Based on the findings of fact, the ALJ entered a final order finding that Ms. Castella was in violation of Counts 1, 2, and 3 of the Amended Administrative Complaint and that the counts were proven by the COE based on clear and convincing evidence. The ALJ found that Counts 4 and 5 were not proven by clear and convincing evidence. The ALJ recommended that Ms. Castella's license be placed on a one-year probationary status during which time she attend and successfully complet training related to her reporting obligations.

         Ms. Castella filed her Exceptions to the Recommended Order on March 29, 2017. She objected to two exhibits of the EOC being listed and considered as admitted into evidence. She also objected to two of the EOC's exhibits that were not included in the exhibits admitted into evidence. Ms. Castella argued that the factual conclusions were not supported by clear and convincing evidence or competent, substantial evidence and that the ALJ relied upon exhibits that were excluded at the formal hearing.

         The EOC then filed Petitioner's Response to Respondent's Exceptions, asserting that there was competent, substantial evidence to support all of the ALJ's findings of fact and conclusions of law. On March 31, 2017, the COE also moved to enhance the recommended penalty requesting a suspension of Ms. Castella's Florida Educator's Certificate for three years from the date of the Final Order, followed by two years' probation, and that she be required to complete two courses and pay a $1, 000 fine within the first year of probation.

         The EPC conducted a hearing on the ALJ's Recommended Order and Ms. Castella's Exceptions on April 26, 2017. The EPC issued an Order on Remand dated May 5, 2017, to the ALJ requesting clarification of certain exhibits on which he relied on in making his findings of fact. The ALJ issued a Supplemental Order Amending the Recommended Order on May 10, 2017, stating that Petitioner's Exhibits 7 and 9 were excluded from those admitted and Respondent's Exhibits D and E are included as exhibits that were admitted. Ms. Castella filed Exceptions to the Supplemental Order on May 11, 2017, and the COE filed a motion to strike these Exceptions.

         The EPC conducted another hearing on October 25, 2017, on the Recommended Order and Ms. Castella's Exceptions, as well as the COE's Motion to Enhance the Penalty. Following argument by the parties, the EPC accepted Ms. Castella's exceptions to two findings and rejected the remaining exceptions, finding there was substantial competent evidence to support each factual finding or substantial competent evidence to infer the factual ...

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