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CHAFFER v. BOARD OF EDUC.

November 1, 2002

CHARLES CHAFFER, PLAINTIFF,
V.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CITY OF LONG BEACH, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Young, District Judge.[fn1] [fn1] Of the District of Massachusetts, sitting by designation.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

On June 8, 1999, the defendant Board of Education ("Board") of the Long Beach City School District ("District") voted to terminate plaintiff Charles Chaffer ("Chaffer"), a groundskeeper in the District since 1989. The Board's decision to terminate Chaffer was made shortly after an administrative hearing, conducted pursuant to New York Civil Service Law Section 75, at which an independent hearing officer reviewed the District's charges of incompetency and misconduct against Chaffer, heard from both sides, and ultimately recommended dismissal. Chaffer did not challenge this determination in state court through a proceeding pursuant to Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Law. Instead, he brought a Section 1983 action challenging his termination in this Court, alleging that the Board, acting under color of state law, denied him his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection of the laws, and violated the contracts clause of the United States Constitution.

Both sides have moved for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. At a hearing on May 9, 2002, the parties agreed that the Court should decide the case on the record submitted on the summary judgment motions, without a formal trial. Having reviewed the record and considered the issues presented, the Court now issues its findings of facts and conclusions of law, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a).

II. FACTS

The facts underlying this case are essentially undisputed by the parties. Chaffer was hired by the District as a grounds-keeper on or about January 25, 1989. Am. Compl. ¶ 11. This position is classified as non-competitive under the Civil Service Law of the State of New York. Id. at ¶ 12. Accordingly, once Chaffer had remained at the job for more than five years, he was entitled to the protections provided by Section 75 of the Civil Service Law, and could not be terminated "except for incompetency or misconduct shown after a hearing upon stated charges." N.Y. Civil Service Law § 75(1), Am. Compl. ¶¶ 13-14.

During the eighteen month period between June 1, 1997 and November 30, 1998, Chaffer missed 87.5 days of work. Plaintiffs Memorandum of Law ("Pl.'s Mem."), 1 [Docket No. 22]; Defendant's Memorandum of Law ("Def.Mem."), 1 [Docket No. 19]. With the exception of one half day, all of these absences were paid by the District as sick leave or other authorized leave under the collective bargaining agreement covering Chaffer's employment. Pl.'s Mem. at 1; Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment and Affirmation in Support ("Pl.'s Mot.") [Docket No. 15 & 16], Ex. 3 — Defendant's Post-Hearing Memorandum, at 3. Throughout this time, Chaffer's supervisors communicated with him orally and in writing about his poor attendance and warned him that he needed to improve. Id. at 4.

On December 15, 1998, the District's Superintendent, Dr. Elliott Landon, served charges of incompetency and misconduct (relating solely to Chaffer's record of absences) against Chaffer, pursuant to Section 75. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Counsel's Declaration in Support, ("Def.'s Mot."), [Docket No. 17 & 18], Ex. A — Statement of Charges at 1-2. The statement of charges informed Chaffer that a hearing had been scheduled for January 13, 1999 before Hearing Officer Terence Smolev, and that Chaffer had eight days to respond to the charges in writing. Id. at 2. On January 13, 1999, the District appeared through its counsel. Id., Ex. C — Report of Hearing Officer, at 2. Chaffer and his counsel also appeared, but left the hearing shortly thereafter, despite being warned by the Hearing Officer that the proceeding would continue. Id. On that date, the District called Assistant Superintendent Randie Berger as a witness to testify regarding Chaffer's absences and the District's records of those absences. Id. Berger testified that Chaffer's absences had imposed a burden on the District because he was the only employee with a special license to use heavy equipment, and that Chaffer had the worst attendance record of the District's 700 employees. Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 4 — Defendant's Post-Hearing Memorandum at 3-4.

On March 31, 1999, the hearing was reconvened at the request of Chaffer's counsel. Def.'s Mot., Ex. C at 2. At that hearing, Chaffer's counsel sought additional time to prepare his defense. Id. His request was granted, and the hearing was adjourned until April 19, 1999. Id. Chaffer was also given the opportunity to file an answer to the District's charges against him, id.; he did so on April 6, 1999. See Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 1 — Chaffer's Answer to Charges. In his answer, Chaffer argued that he could not be terminated for his absences, since all of them had been taken as paid absences as entitlements under the collective bargaining agreement governing his employment. Id. at 1.

The third and final day of the hearing was on April 19, 1999, at which time Chaffer's counsel cross-examined Berger, and then rested. Def.'s Mot., Ex. C, at 2. Both sides subsequently submitted post-hearing memoranda to the Hearing Officer in mid-May. See Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 3 & 4.

On May 27, 1999, the Hearing Officer issued his report. Def.'s Mot., Ex. C. In this report, he stated that Chaffer had taken excessive absences that he knew or should have known would have an adverse effect on the District. Id. at 3. He further found that, notwithstanding the fact that Chaffer's absences had been paid, the number of his absences had been excessive and that "any penalty short of dismissal . . . would not be sufficient in this matter"; he then recommended that Chaffer be dismissed from employment with the District Id. at 3-4. The Board subsequently voted to dismiss Chaffer on June 8, 1999, without giving Chaffer an opportunity to respond to the Hearing Officer's recommendation. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 21-22. Chaffer's counsel informed him of the termination several days later; Chaffer himself was never given written notice by the District. Affidavit of William Friedman ("Friedman Affidavit") [Docket No. 23], ¶ 8.

III. DISCUSSION

Chaffer's cause of action under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 alleges that the Board, acting under color of state law, deprived him of his constitutionally protected rights to due process and equal protection, and violated the contracts clause of the United States ...


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