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BLISS v. ROCHESTER CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT

March 28, 2002

MARY LOU BLISS, PLAINTIFF,
V.
ROCHESTER CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS. NANCY L. COONS, PLAINTIFF, V. THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE ROCHESTER CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS. PAMELA EATON, PLAINTIFF, V. THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE ROCHESTER CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer, Chief United States District Judge.

    DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

These cases represent yet another chapter in a line of cases filed by a single attorney on behalf of a number of individuals against the Rochester City School District ("RCSD"), the Rochester Teachers' Association ("RTA"), and numerous individuals employed by, or associated with, the RCSD or RTA. In these and other cases (see also Seils v. RCSD*fn1, 98-CV-6197; Murphy v. RCSD, 00-CV-6038; Matics v. RCSD, 00-CV-6612), the prolix complaints set forth numerous vague, often incoherent, causes of action on behalf of current and former RCSD teachers. Because of glaring procedural defects and lack of evidentiary support for the claims, the Court grants summary judgment in favor of all defendants on all causes of action.*fn2

Mary Lou Bliss

Mary Lou Bliss ("Bliss"), who had been a teacher in the RCSD and a member of RTA, commenced her action against twenty-four named defendants as well as unnamed defendants comprised of "all of the sentry staff at BFHS (Benjamin Franklin High School) between 1996 and 1999." (Bliss Complaint, Dkt. #1, nte. 2). Bliss alleges, in nine separate causes of action, claims involving breach of contract, discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("§ 1983"), 42 U.S.C. § 1985 ("§ 1985"), the New York State Constitution, the New York Human Rights Law ("NYHRL"), and the New York Civil Rights Law ("NYCRL"). The complaint alone contains 138 separate paragraphs covering 38 pages.*fn3 Twenty of the named defendants are directly related to RCSD ("the RCSD defendants in Bliss"). They include past or present RCSD employees and past or present members of its board. Three of the named defendants are directly related to RTA ("the RTA defendants in Bliss"). One of the defendants is a former student in the RCSD.

Nancy Coons

Nancy Coons ("Coons"), currently a RCSD teacher and RTA member, commenced her action against twenty-five named defendants. As Bliss does in her case, Coons also alleges claims involving breach of contract, discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII, § 1983, § 1985, the New York State Constitution, the NYHRL, and the NYCRL. Twenty-two of the named defendants are directly related to RCSD ("the RCSD defendants in Coons"). They include past or present RCSD employees and past or present members of its board. Three of the named defendants are directly related to RTA ("the RTA defendants in Coons"), and are identical to the defendants named by Bliss.

Pamela Eaton

Pamela Eaton ("Eaton"), another RCSD teacher and RTA member, commenced her action against thirty-one named defendants. As with Bliss and Coons, Eaton alleges claims involving breach of contract, discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII, § 1983, § 1985, the New York State Constitution, the NYHRL, and the NYCRL. Unlike Bliss and Coons, however, Eaton also alleges violations of the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d) ("EPA"). The complaint contains 89 separate paragraphs (one paragraph alone has an additional 61 subparagraphs) (see Eaton Complaint, ¶ 32) covering 41 pages. Twenty-six of the named defendants are directly related to RCSD ("the RCSD defendants in Eaton"). They include past or present RCSD employees and past or present members of its board. Four of the named defendants are directly related to RTA ("the RTA defendants in Eaton"). As Bliss does, Eaton names a former student as one of the defendants.

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Presently before the Court are the RCSD defendants' and RTA defendants'*fn4 separate motions to dismiss, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. In response, plaintiffs have cross-moved for partial summary judgment and for injunctive relief. In addition, plaintiffs moved to "supplement the record," to amend the complaint, and sought various forms of discovery-related relief.

Plaintiffs have made the Court's review more difficult by the voluminous, vague and repetitive papers submitted in response to defendants' motions or in support of plaintiffs' various cross-motions. As I noted in Seils, "[t]he volume and prolixity is seemingly `designed to obscure rather than to illumine the events giving rise to this lawsuit.'" Seils v. RCSD, entered January 23, 2002, pp. 2-3 (Dkt. #212) (quoting Pross v. Katz, 784 F.2d 455, 456 (2d Cir. 1986)). Indeed, plaintiffs' counsel frequently "incorporated by reference" numerous, voluminous documents filed in several cases which she considers "related." See, e.g., Bliss, Dkt. #s 22, 27. Together, all of these papers would be measured in feet rather than inches. Moreover, plaintiffs' failure to furnish specific citation and argument as to how these myriad papers demonstrate any issue of fact warranting trial:

assumes the district court has an affirmative obligation to plumb the record in order to find a genuine issue of material fact. It does not. A district court is not required to speculate on which portion of the record the nonmoving party relies, nor is it obligated to wade through and search the entire record for some specific facts that might support the nonmoving party's claim. Once [defendant] met its burden of demonstrating a lack of genuine issues of material fact, [plaintiff] was required to designate specific facts creating a triable controversy.

Barge v. Anheuser-Busch Bush, Inc., 87 F.3d 256, 260 (8th Cir. 1996) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Freidel v. City of Madison, 832 F.2d 965, 969 (7th Cir. 1987) (stating that it was not the court's "duty on appeal to wade through the record and make arguments for either party" and that the nonmoving parties were "fatally remiss in citing to the district court portions of the record that they claimed supported their assertions"). This is not the first time that I have admonished plaintiffs' counsel for her failure to specify the relevance of materials on which she has sought to rely. See Seils v. RCSD, Court's letter to plaintiffs' counsel, dated February 15, 2000, and Decision and Order, entered January 23, 2002 (Dkt. #212).

III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Mary Lou Bliss

Bliss, a fifty-six year-old Caucasian female, has been employed by RCSD as a special education teacher since 1988. With one exception*fn5, Bliss taught at Franklin High School ("Franklin") during the course of her employment at RCSD.

Bliss claims, and defendants do not dispute, that she was brutally attacked by a former student, defendant Henry Hill, on March 31, 1998. As a result of Hill's criminal assault, Bliss was hospitalized and took a disability leave-of-absence from her teaching position at Franklin. Bliss claims that when she returned after her medical leave, she was subjected to further harassment by students which caused her to leave Franklin. She has been on medical leave since October 1999.

Most of Bliss's claims revolve around Hill's assault. Bliss sets forth nine causes of action, including claims that defendants*fn6 discriminated against her because of her "race and/or color and/or sex and/or age" as well, apparently, as her national origin and disability, and retaliated against her. Bliss Complaint, Dkt. #1, ¶ 1, ¶ 5, p. 10; ¶ 101. Bliss also alleges a laundry list of claims she considers "harassment" by students that she experienced while at Franklin. Although it is unclear, Bliss appears to claim that she was harassed by students because she is Caucasian, or female, or older, or disabled. On October 20, 2000, Bliss commenced this action.

Nancy Coons

Coons, also a Caucasian female, was hired by RCSD in 1993 as a substitute teacher, and in 1998 she accepted a full-time position. During the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 academic years, Coons was assigned as an art teacher at School No. 6, an RCSD elementary school. In January 1999, Coons sought to transfer to a different school. The RCSD defendants maintain that her transfer request was denied because there were no art teaching positions available into which she could transfer. In September 2000, Coons voluntarily transferred to a full-time position that allows her to teach regularly at a number of different schools. According to the most recent information submitted to the Court, Coons currently teaches at four different schools (School Nos. 2, 7, 33, and 34) every week.

Like Bliss, Coons alleges a variety of claims. However, she appears to focus her claims on RCSD's hiring and transfer procedures. In particular, she alleges both that she was not offered her permanent position soon enough and that her 1999 transfer request was denied because of her race and national origin, and that she was also discriminated against because of her color and gender, and in retaliation for her actions. Indeed, as Bliss has alleged, Coons claims that defendants discriminated against her because of her "race and/or color and/or national origin and/or sex" as well, apparently, as her age and disability, and retaliated against her. Coons Complaint, Dkt. #1, ¶¶ 1, 21, 33.

On July 6, 2000, Coons commenced this action. Thereafter, 168 days elapsed before Coons first attempted to serve her complaint on December 21, 2000.

Pamela Eaton

Eaton, a "Native American/white female" (Eaton Complaint, Dkt. #1, ¶ 3), has been employed by RCSD as a graphic arts teacher since 1997. Eaton, who taught at John Marshall High School ("Marshall"), lists a string of claims similar to those made by Bliss and Coons. Among them are claims that defendants discriminated against her because of her "race and/or color and/or sex and/or religion" as well, apparently, as her national origin, age, and disability, and retaliated against her. Eaton Complaint, Dkt. #1, ¶¶ 1, 29, 50.

Most of Eaton's claims revolve around an assault that she suffered on February 17, 2000. On that day, a former student attacked Eaton with a "sock filled with steel combination locker locks." Id., ¶ 32(d). Eaton was hospitalized for the injuries she sustained in the assault, and since then she has been on a disability leave of absence from her teaching position at Marshall.

Eaton also alleges a laundry list of claims she considers "harassment" by students that she experienced while at Marshall. Although it is unclear, Eaton appears to claim that she was harassed by students because she is Native-American, or white, or female, or older, or disabled. On April 5, 2001, Eaton commenced this action.

IV. DISCUSSION

The RCSD defendants as well as the RTA defendants now move for summary judgment*fn7 against Bliss, Coons, and Eaton on all causes of action on several grounds. For the reasons that follow, the motions are granted and each complaint is dismissed.

A. Summary Judgment — General Standards In Discrimination Cases

The standard for deciding summary judgment motions is well established. Rule 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 judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). 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). 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)).

"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.'" Id. at 587. When perusing the record to determine whether a rational fact-finder could find for the non-moving party, however, all reasonable inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. See Murray v. National Broadcasting Co., 844 F.2d 988, 992 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 955 (1988).

The general principles underlying a motion for summary judgment fully apply to discrimination actions. Weinstock v. Columbia Univ., 224 F.3d 33, 41 (2d Cir. 2000). Although courts should be cautious about granting summary judgment in cases where motive, intent or state of mind are at issue, Dister v. Continental Group, Inc., 859 F.2d 1108, 1114 (2d Cir. 1988); Montana v. First Federal Savings and Loan Ass'n of Rochester, 869 F.2d 100, 103 (2d Cir. 1989), "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." Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 829 (1985) (summary judgment rule would be rendered sterile if mere incantation of intent or state of mind would act as a talisman to defeat an otherwise valid motion). Consequently, once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party in a discrimination action must come forward with evidence upon which a rational fact-finder could return a verdict in his favor. For a plaintiff in a discrimination case to survive a motion for summary judgment, he or she must do more than present "conclusory allegations of discrimination," Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 829 (1985); he or she must offer "concrete particulars" to substantiate the claim. Id. (cited in Duprey v. Prudential Ins. Co., 910 F. Supp. 879 (N.D.N.Y. 1996)).

B. The Title VII Claims

There are a number of reasons, procedural and substantive, as to why the RCSD and RTA defendants' motions for summary judgment must be granted in each of these cases.

1. Procedural Defects

a. Mary Lou Bliss

Many of plaintiff's federal claims suffer from the fatal procedural infirmity that they were untimely on June 29, 2000 when she filed her EEOC charge. This alone mandates dismissal of all such claims.

Prior to the commencement of the instant action, Bliss had not filed any grievance with the RCSD or the RTA. She did not file an administrative charge with the EEOC until June 29, 2000, which was 821 days after the March 1998 assault on which she bases much of her action. Shortly thereafter, she requested a right-to-sue letter, which was issued on July 24, 2000, 25 days after she filed her charge. It is axiomatic that allegations of discrimination occurring more than 300 days prior to the date a charge is filed are time-barred under Title VII. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1); Butts v. New York Dep't of Housing Preservation & Dev., 990 F.2d 1397, 1401 (2d Cir. 1993). Therefore, her federal claims are limited to incidents alleged to have occurred on or after September 3, 1999, 300 days before she filed her original charge on June 29, 2000.

Bliss concedes that many of her claims were based on acts alleged to have occurred more than 300 days before she filed her EEOC complaint, but argues that they are preserved by the continuing violation exception to the statute of limitations, and that therefore they are insulated from the present summary judgment motions. The "continuing violation exception" to the general 300 day limitation provides that if a plaintiff "files a timely EEOC charge about a particular discriminatory act committed in furtherance of an ongoing policy of discrimination," the statute of limitations is extended "for all claims of discriminatory acts committed under that policy." Lightfoot v. Union Carbide Corp., 110 F.3d 898, 907 (2d Cir. 1997); see Harris v. City of New York, 186 F.3d 243, 248-50 (2d Cir. 1999).

To invoke the doctrine, a plaintiff must show either (1) "specific ongoing discriminatory policies or practices," or (2) "specific and related instances of discrimination [that] are permitted by the employer to continue unremedied for so long as to amount to a discriminatory policy or practice." Quinn v. Green Tree Credit Corp., 159 F.3d 759, 766 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Cornwell v. Robinson, 23 F.3d 694, 704 (2d Cir. 1994)); see also Lambert v. Genesee Hosp., 10 F.3d 46, 53 (2d Cir. 1993) ("[M]ultiple incidents of discrimination, even similar ones, that are not the result of a discriminatory policy or mechanism do not amount to a continuing violation"), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1052 (1994).

Bliss fails to allege any "specific ongoing discriminatory policies or practices" in her complaint. Her conclusory allegations are wholly insufficient. Weeks v. New York State Division of Parole, 273 F.3d 76, 91 (2d Cir. 2001). The law is clear that the continuing violation exception applies only where there are "specific" or "identifiable" discriminatory customs or practices, or specific and related acts that are tantamount to such customs or policies. Id. Moreover, she has failed to offer any proof whatsoever to support her allegations in response to the present summary judgment motions. See Lightfoot v. Union Carbide Corp., 110 F.3d at 907 ("[a]lthough the mere allegation of the existence of [a discriminatory] policy would be sufficient to withstand a challenge for failure to state a claim, something more is required to avoid summary judgment on the issue"). Plaintiff's rejoinder is that she has alleged a number of incidents. This is not enough to secure the protection of the continuing violation doctrine. See Weeks v. New York State Division of Parole, 273 F.3d at 91 ("[t]he events pleaded, though embroidered with adjectives and adverbial phrases, are few and unlinked; they are `not continuous in time with one another or with the timely acts that she has alleged'") (quoting Quinn v. Green Tree Credit Corp., 159 F.3d at 766).

Even if the alleged discriminatory incidents were continuous and related, Bliss cannot overcome the statute of limitations because there is no evidence that either RCSD or RTA "permitted" the alleged violations "to continue unremedied for so long" that their repetition "amount[ed] to a discriminatory policy or practice." Id. Bliss does not challenge RCSD and RTA's assertions that remedial action on the (untimely) incidents was taken through internal channels, to the extent Bliss reported them. In sum, Bliss identifies no specific discriminatory policy of RCSD or RTA, and alleges no toleration of incidents that would be tantamount to such a policy.

I reject plaintiff's counsel's remarkable assertion that "the statute of limitations has not yet begun to run." Logan-Baldwin Aff., ¶ 24, Dkt. #22. To the contrary, the statute of limitations has not only "begun to run," it has expired. Perhaps most compelling is the fact that plaintiff does not allege anything that occurred to her after September 3, 1999, 300 days prior to the date she filed her charge. In fact, the record establishes that plaintiff ceased working on October 25, 1999, when she began an extended medical leave. All of her claims on which her continuing violation theory must rest, therefore, must be tied to some timely claim based on an event that occurred during the limited period between September 3rd and October 25th. Because plaintiff has offered no evidence to support such a claim, her continuing violation theory fails.

Apparently recognizing the weakness of her continuing violation defense, plaintiff also argues that she was not required to file any charge at all because she considers herself to be a member of a class action in the Seils case, and she attempts to "piggyback" on the charges filed in that case. Of course, this argument fails because no class was ever certified in the Seils case. Even if one had been certified, she would not been able to elude the charge-filing requirements because she was ...


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