Courts rule McKeesport teacher fired without cause in school sex incident
Two state courts ruled that former McKeesport Area teacher Angela DiBattista was fired without cause for admitting she had sex with a fellow teacher inside a classroom.
“The petition for allowance of appeal is denied,” state Supreme Court ruled on March 13 when McKeesport Area School District sought to reverse a 15-page decision from Commonwealth Court.
Commonwealth Court said testimony from the district and DiBattista's witnesses at a 2010 disciplinary hearing supported the conclusion that DiBattista was promised immunity for admitting her actions with Patrick Collins, a fellow teacher and a former McKeesport Area Education Association president.
As Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer wrote for the appeals court, “The parties mutually intended that if (DiBattista) agreed to testify she would have no concern or fear that any district action would be brought against her as a result of such cooperation.”
On June 20, 2013, judges Jubelirer, Dan Pellegrini and Mary Hannah Leavitt heard arguments by school district special counsel Carl Beard of Altoona and DiBattista attorney Philip A. Fabiano.
Neither state court answered the question about whether McKeesport Area must rehire her. District officials did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
DiBattista could not be reached for comment but reportedly has worked outside of teaching since her termination.
“She wants to teach,” said Fabiano, DiBattista's third attorney. She previously was represented by her brother John M. Zoscak and Jefferson Hills attorney Charles LoPresti.
LoPresti defended DiBattista before the school board and its chosen hearing officer, attorney Thomas M. Costello.
LoPresti said district Solicitors Jack Cambest, Gary Matta and Jacob Skezas offered DiBattista immunity until she allegedly admitted to an affair that may have gone on from 1999 to 2004, as indicated in testimony at her hearing.
LoPresti said his client was treated as a scapegoat. Beard said she “violated community standards and failed to provide a good example for her students.”
Beard tried to end the hearing on its first day, May 24, 2010, by grilling DiBattista.
“Upon the advice of my counsel (LoPresti) I refuse to answer the question,” she said once, then followed 30 times with the answer “same.”
Among Beard's questions: “Isn't it true that you made up allegations in order to get other people in trouble when you knew it was untrue?”
Zoscak, a tax attorney, stepped in to help his sister prepare for Collins' March 2005 hearing before the board.
Zoscak later testified that initially he was treated almost as a fourth solicitor by Matta, Cambest and Skezas.
The 2005 hearing was based on an alleged June 2004 confrontation at old Cornell Intermediate School between Collins and DiBattista where she suffered an eye injury.
Collins allegedly threatened to tell his wife and DiBattista's now-deceased husband of their affair if DiBattista ended it.
On June 21, 2010, Zoscak testified that he asked his sister, “Did Pat Collins hit you?”
“Yes, he hit me,” Zoscak quoted his sister as replying.
Matta and Cambest said her testimony changed over the weeks before Collins' hearing.
The solicitors testified that they expected her to say Collins hit her when she told them she had been in a sexual relationship with Collins.
On June 1, 2010, Collins testified that he was going to tell his wife about the affair, but never threatened to tell DiBattista's husband, a district custodian who died in December 2006.
In January 2006 DiBattista was suspended from her teaching job at Cornell.
Her hearing was scheduled for June 2006 but it was pushed back by her health problems and scheduling delays.
In November 2006 Collins agreed to retire and accept a $53,000 settlement that included vacation time, sick days and insurance premium costs.
The district and its special counsel maintained that DiBattista was offered the same deal to retire.
However, Beard said in 2010, “It is not the district's fault that (Collins) had 33 years (tenure) and (DiBattista) 12.”
In February 2011 the school board fired her.
“The issue is now behind the district,” Matta said. “We're not concerned about anything else regarding this matter.”
“I don't know what planet he's on,” LoPresti said. “It is far, far, far from over.”
First there was an appeal to then-state education secretary Ronald Tomalis, who upheld the firing in July 2012.
“(The) secretary concluded that there was no enforceable immunity agreement, reasoning that since (Collins') arbitration involved the alleged June 2004 injury to (DiBattista's) eye, not immorality,” Jubelirer wrote.
Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller declined comment. Tomalis headed that department through May 2013.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.