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BYARS v. JAMESTOWN TEACHERS ASSOCIATION

March 17, 2002

JANITA K. BYARS, PLAINTIFF,
V.
JAMESTOWN TEACHERS ASSOCIATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin, United States District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

On December 10, 1997, plaintiff Janita K. Byars ("Dr. Byars") filed this action against defendant Jamestown Teachers Association ("JTA"), asserting claims for employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as amended; conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); as well as claims under State statutory and common law. Item 1. Dr. Byars later amended her complaint to add the Jamestown City School District ("School District") as a defendant. Item 9. Extensive discovery took place. The School District and plaintiff arrived at a settlement. Item 54. Subsequently, the JTA filed a motion for summary judgment, Item 44, which plaintiff opposed. Items 46-49. Further briefing followed; and on November 9, 2001, oral argument was held. Plaintiff's counsel then submitted a letter and exhibits addressed to certain assertions proffered by counsel during oral argument. Item 56.

For the reasons that follow, the court grants defendant's motion for summary judgment.

FACTS

In June of 1995 and 1996, Dr. Byars, who had extensive experience as an educator, Item 48, Ex. A, received very good evaluations of her performance as JHS principal from Assistant Superintendent Robert Sigler. Item 48, Exs. I and J. The June 1996 evaluation recommended "her continued service to the district." Item 48, Ex. J, p. 10. In August of 1996, Dr. Byars met with James Coffman, who was Director of Secondary and Middle Level Education, and Craig King, Superintendent of the Jamestown School District, to discuss her "career and [her] future with Jamestown." Item 44, Exhibits, Byars Transcript, p. 76. They presented Dr. Byars with a list of five concerns,*fn2 Item 48, Ex. K, regarding "educational requirements and [her] performance as principal. . . ." Item 48, Ex. C, p. 77. Dr. Byars characterized the tone of the meeting as "ominous" and "[n]egative," id., pp. 76, 77, such that she questioned whether they were "putting [her] on notice." Id., p. 76. She subsequently acknowledged that the meeting was part of the evaluation process to address leadership areas where she needed improvement, id., pp. 80-82, that they discussed legitimate areas of concern, id., p. 77, and that nothing derogatory, improper, or discriminatory was said to her or implied at this point, Item 44, Byars Transcript, p. 96. Nevertheless, Dr. Byars testified at her deposition that, in her experience, the meeting did not represent a standard approach to doing an evaluation.*fn3 Item 48, Ex. C, p. 80.

At the end of October 1996, both Mr. Coffman and Mr. King again met with Dr. Byars to review her progress toward the goals set forth in the previous meeting. Item 44, Byars transcript, p. 97. Dr. Byars had prepared her files and assembled "supporting evidence of work that I had done and we talked through it." Id. Approximately eight or nine days later, while at home one evening, Dr. Byars received a telephone call from Mr. King. He asked to meet with her the next morning. When asked about the topic of the meeting, Mr. King responded, "a couple of things." Id., p. 99. The meeting took place on November 6, 1996. According to Dr. Byars, Mr. King told her that "the school board had met, that they told [him] that even if he recommended me for tenure, they would not vote positively. . . ." Id., p. 100. She did not know who on the Board had relayed this message to the Superintendent. Id., p. 101. Mr. Coffman, who was also present at this meeting, disputes Dr. Byars' recollection of Mr. King's statement. Item 48, Ex. H, pp. 251-52.

Dr. Byars left the meeting very upset. Item 44, Byars transcript, p. 106. When she returned to the High School, she encountered teachers Carolyn Whitehead and William Boerst. When asked what was wrong, Dr. Byars informed them that she was not going to receive tenure. Item 48, Ex. C, p. 106. The next day, November 7, 1996, Ms. Whitehead, a supporter of Dr. Byars, had a confrontation with David Mazzone, a teacher and JTA Secretary. Mr. Mazzone wrote a note to Mr. Coffman, complaining about Ms. Whitehead's manner. Item 48, Ex. L.

During Dr. Byars' period of employment at JHS, the JTA newsletter, "JTALK," distributed regularly at the High School since the early 1990s, began to list all the grievances that the JTA had filed. Item 46, p. 4. Many grievances were listed against Dr. Byars personally, Item 48, Ex. D, ¶ 43, and resolved grievances were not removed. JTA Vice President Gary Peters could not provide a reason why resolved grievances continued to be listed. Item 48, Ex. G, pp. 31-32.

As a result of the "unrest" at the High School, the JTA asked the State Teachers' Union, the National Education Association — New York ("NEA"), to make an assessment of the problems at JHS. Item 48, Ex. M, p. 20. JTA President Bruce Carpenter stated that the JTA did not know how "widespread" the unrest was, or if there were "underlying reasons" for it.*fn4 Id., p. 21. The JTA thought that if an outside agency was brought in, "with no real stake, perhaps we could get a little better hand on the way things — the way people really felt, what was really going on." Id. Superintendent King granted the NEA permission to conduct its inquiry at the High School. Item 48, Ex. M, p. 24. The NEA asked the Superintendent and the Board of Education to submit questions to the assessment team concerning any matters they wanted the team to address. Item 48, Ex. M, pp. 23-24.

Teacher Carolyn Whitehead expressed her opposition to the upcoming NEA assessment to teacher and Union member Jeffrey Keppel. According to the plaintiff, Whitehead's comments caused Keppel to file a grievance on November 8, 1996 against Dr. Byars concerning those comments. Item 46, p. 9; Item 48, Ex. N.

The NEA conducted its assessment during December 9-11, 1996. The Report, entitled, "Jamestown High School Assessment — A report on a variety of issues of concern to members of the National Education Association of New York and the Jamestown Teachers Association working at the Jamestown High School" ("NEA Report"), was published later that month. Item 51, Ex. C. The NEA Report indicated that its goal was to meet the needs of the JTA membership employed at JHS, and addressed the question, "What would you change with regard to policies, programs and procedures at Jamestown High School that you believe would create for the staff and students the ideal place to work and learn?" Id., p. 1. While the NEA Report did make reference to a "small cadre of school employees who see the building problems as being exploited by the `unionist' [sic] to oust the top building administrator," id., Findings, ¶ 9, it went on to say that "there are those who see this cadre and [sic] a group who would sacrifice the integrity of the entire school simply to save the job and reputation of the top school administrator." Id. The NEA Report's first recommendation was that "[t]he district must act immediately to effect a change of principal at JHS. The risk of the fractionalization expanding to the entire faculty is real and the resulting harm would be of a long range nature. Time is of the essence." Id., p. 3. The Report contained the proviso that it "may not be used for any purpose, in whole or in part, by any individual, group, organization, authority or publication without the expressed written permission of the JTA and the National Education Association of New York (NEA/NY)." Id., p. 1.

Superintendent King was provided with a copy of the Report, Item 10, ¶ 13, as were the fifteen members of the JTA executive committee. Item 48, Ex. M, p. 29. Despite the limitations imposed on its circulation, supra, the NEA Report was distributed anonymously outside the School District. A Superintendent of Schools in another school district received a copy, mailed in a Jamestown High School Guidance Office envelope. Item 48, Ex. O, pp. 201-02. The Chairperson of the JHS Guidance Department, Julie Zaffalon, testified that she did not know how a copy of the document came to be mailed in a Guidance Department envelope to another Superintendent. Id., p. 202. She stated she was unaware that she was reported to have admitted to people that she mailed out copies, and stated that if a person had made that claim, "[t]hey would be lying." Id. She added that Mr. Coffman had indicated to her that he and Mr. King "felt that it might have come right from [Dr. Byars], to kind of get me or get the district or whatever." Id., p. 203. The report was eventually published in the local newspaper in March 1997. Item 12, ¶ 33.

Following publication of the NEA Report, the climate at JHS continued to deteriorate. During spring 1997, various teachers criticized JTA policies and expressed support for Dr. Byars. See generally Peterson, Boerst, and Oram affidavits, Item 48, Exs. D, E, and F. One of those outspoken teachers claims he was retaliated against by the JTA for supporting Dr. Byars. Id., Ex. E, ¶¶ 45-48.

On March 7, 1997, Mr. Coffman sent a memorandum to Superintendent King regarding "Request to Remove Dr. Byars from J.H.S." Item 44, Plaintiff's Deposition #3,*fn5 p. 1. In this seven-page document, Mr. Coffman provided examples of Dr. Byars' negative role in various problems and incidents at the High School. The document referred to a communications breakdown between Dr. Byars and the faculty and staff, and to a "lack of trust, and a feeling that the principal had abdicated her administrative authority to a small group of her teacher friends. Factioning and public lobbying became a vicious circle, which at this juncture cannot be stopped with the exception of the removal of Dr. Byars from the building." Id., p. 6. He concluded that "a change in leadership will be required to solve this problem." Id., pp. 6-7.

As indicated above, Dr. Byars first filed suit against the JTA in December 1997, Item 1, and amended her complaint nine months later to add the School District as a defendant. Item 9. She asserted claims against the JTA for: sex discrimination pursuant to both Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law, § 296(c); conspiracy with the School District pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); tortious interference with contract; tortious interference with prospective economic advantage; and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After extensive discovery, the JTA moved for summary judgment. Item 44.

DISCUSSION

I. Legal Standard for Summary Judgment

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that a motion for summary judgment shall be granted if the pleadings and supplemental evidentiary materials "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Under the rule, the burden is on the moving party to inform the court of the basis for its motion and to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment "[a]lways bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of `the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id.; Gallo v. Prudential Residential Services, 22 F.3d 1219 (2d Cir. 1994).

After the moving party has carried its burden, the non-moving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). "[T]he non-moving party must come forward with `specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 587 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). "The party opposing summary judgment may not rely simply on conclusory statements or on contentions that the affidavits supporting the motion are not credible." Goenaga v. March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, 51 F.3d 14, 18 (2d Cir. 1995) (citations omitted). The affidavits must "set forth such facts as would be admissible in evidence. . . ." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).

"`Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no "genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 599 (citations omitted). In evaluating a summary judgment motion, "the judge's function is not . . . to weigh the evidence and to determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986); Sutera v. Schering Corp., 73 F.3d 13, 15 (2d Cir. 1995). When perusing the record to determine whether a rational fact-finder would find for the nonmoving party, "a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party." Sorlucco v. New York City Police Department, 888 F.2d 4, 6 (2d Cir. 1989).

It is well established that

[t]he general principles underlying a motion for summary judgment fully apply to discrimination actions. Although courts should be cautious about granting summary judgment in cases where motive, intent or state of mind are at issue, see Dister v. Continental Group, Inc., 859 F.2d 1108, 1114 (2d Cir. 1988), "the salutary purposes of summary judgment — avoiding protracted, expensive and harassing trials — apply no less to discrimination cases than to commercial or other areas of litigation."

Jordan v. Olsten Corp., 111 F. Supp.2d 227, 232-33 (W.D.N.Y. 2000) (citation omitted).

The JTA argues that there is "no proof whatsoever that there was any invidious discrimination against plaintiff carried out by the JTA," Item 50, p. 1, and that the plaintiff "cannot submit any proof in evidentiary form, because none exists, which would raise any triable issue of fact regarding the liability of the JTA to [Dr. Byars] under any of plaintiff's causes of action." Item 44, Sawicki Aff., ¶ 5. Dr. Byars, on the other hand, provides documents in support of her contention that the Union discriminated against her because of her sex and attempted to cause the School Board to discriminate against her as well. Item 9, ¶ 111.

II. Title VII and New York State Executive Law Claims of ...


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