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Peres v. Oceanside Union Free School District

March 30, 2006

MARY PERES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
OCEANSIDE UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT, HERBERT R. BROWN, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DORIE C. CIULLA, IN HER INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND RICHARD ROSCHELLE, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hurley, District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Mary Peres ("Plaintiff") filed the present action against defendants Oceanside Union Free School District (the "District"), Herbert R. Brown ("Brown"), Dorie C. Ciulla ("Ciulla"), and Richard Roschelle ("Roschelle") (collectively, "Defendants") alleging that they violated her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983") and that they discriminated against her in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the "ADEA") and the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"). Plaintiff also asserts several other state law claims. Roschelle has moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

The following summary of facts is drawn from the Complaint. Plaintiff is employed by the District as a high school teacher of marketing and business courses and as Advisor for the Distributive Education Clubs of America/Association of Marketing and Management Students ("DECA") Program at Oceanside High School. (Compl. ¶ 17.) She is also Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the New York State Chapter of DECA. (Id.) She has been employed by the District for over thirty years. (Id. ¶ 30.)

In 1994, Plaintiff was appointed Student Projects Coordinator ("SP Coordinator") at Oceanside High School for which she received an additional stipend. (Id. ¶ 19.) The SP Coordinator is responsible for coordinating the operation of all extra-curricular activities within the High School. (Id. ¶ 20.) Plaintiff continued in this position until she was terminated effective July 1, 2004. (Id. ¶ 19.) All of her claims in this lawsuit arise out of this termination.

Specifically, Plaintiff claims that she was removed from this position both as a direct result of her reporting financial improprieties by other District employees and based upon her age. Her claims are discussed in more detail below.

A. Plaintiff's Reporting of Financial Improprieties

Plaintiff alleges that in September 2001, she discovered that the Student Projects Secretary was forging Plaintiff's name on purchase orders. (Id. ¶ 58.) She promptly informed the Assistant High School Principal who, upon information and belief, instructed the Secretary to "cease and desist." (Id.¶ 59.) Thereafter, Plaintiff brought this matter to the then High School Principal Gerard Cairns ("Principal Cairns") who ordered the Secretary not to forge Plaintiff's name on purchase orders. (Id. ¶ 60.) According to Plaintiff, despite this warning, the Secretary continued to forge Plaintiff's name on documents and Plaintiff began to notice additional financial irregularities. (Id.)

Plaintiff continued to report her concerns to the District's "Principals and Administrative Officers." (Id. ¶ 62.) On June 4, 2002, Plaintiff met with Brown (the Superintendent of Schools), the Assistant Superintendent, and Principal Cairns to discuss these matters. Plaintiff alleges that at that meeting, "Brown supported the Secretary's actions including the forgeries and financial irregularities, and told Plaintiff to disregard them." (Id.)

Thereafter, the alleged forgeries and financial irregularities persisted and Plaintiff continued to report them to the District. (Id. ¶ 63.) In March 2003, Plaintiff spoke to Ciulla, who was then the Principal, and relayed her concerns. (Id. ¶ 64.) Ciulla in turn discussed the matter with Brown who thereafter ordered Plaintiff to stop making such accusations. (Id. ¶ 65.)

In May 2003, during the absence of the Secretary, the Student Projects safe was opened by High School personnel and was discovered to contain $66,000.00 in cash and checks, in direct violation of the Board of Education's policies. (Id. ¶ 71.) Plaintiff "once again" requested that the Secretary be removed from the Student Projects Center but Brown refused. (Id. ¶ 72.) Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff was warned by Ciulla that Brown wanted Plaintiff to "back off" from her accusations. (Id. ¶ 73.) Plaintiff alleges that "[d]ue to her voicing of these matters of public concern, Plaintiff was removed from her position of [SP] Coordinator" in July 2004. (Id. ¶ 74.)

B. Allegations of Age Discrimination

Plaintiff alleges that all of the actions complained of in her pleading "took place after she was more than forty years of age." (Id. ¶ 29.) She further claims that the "actions of the District occurred under circumstances which give rise to inferences of discrimination based upon age." (Id. ¶ 33.) Finally, she alleges after she was removed from the position of SP Coordinator, she was replaced "with a teacher who is under the age of forty." (Id. ¶ 34.)

C. The DECA Trip and Plaintiff's Resulting Disciplinary Letter

From April 30 through May 5, 2004, Plaintiff chaperoned a school trip to Nashville, Tennessee with nineteen of her students. (Id. ¶¶ 89-90.) Plaintiff claims that she was denied the right to bring several other teacher chaperones, in violation of the District's practices, in retaliation for her whistle blowing. (Id. ¶ 93.) After many requests, Plaintiff was ultimately allowed to bring one teacher and two security personnel. (Id. ¶ 92.) During the trip, several students violated school protocol and left the hotel to go to a local club. (Id. ¶ 95.) One of the students was physically injured at the club and had to be taken to the hospital by Plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 96-97.)

On May 6, 2004, "without advance notice and in violation of her due process rights to be accompanied by a union representative, Plaintiff was called into Ciulla's office." (Id. ¶ 102.) Plaintiff was questioned regarding the events that took place on the DECA trip. (Id.) Contrary to school policy requirements, Plaintiff received no formal review of her performance on the trip or any document or review concerning the meeting. (Id. ¶ 103.)

On May 17, 2004, Plaintiff was informed that she was going to be brought up on disciplinary charges pursuant to section 3020-a of the New York State Education Law and that she was going to lose her job for endangering the health of a minor. (Id. ¶ 104.) Thereafter, Roschelle, a teacher at Oceanside High School and Executive Vice President of the union representing the District's teachers, (id. ¶ 16), told Plaintiff that unless she signed a letter being prepared by the District, Plaintiff would lose her job. (Id. ¶ 105.) Plaintiff received the letter on May 21, 2004, a copy of which is annexed to the Complaint. (Id. ¶ 106.) The letter, which is written by Brown and dated May 21, 2004, sets forth information allegedly provided by Plaintiff at the May 6, 2004 meeting about the DECA trip. After summarizing Plaintiff's alleged position at the meeting, Brown sets forth in detail the "many lapses of supervision and judgment" that occurred during the trip. (Id. Ex. 10.) In conclusion he directs that Plaintiff's "role on overnight DECA trips be limited to ensuring that the students participate in the appropriate competitions. [Plaintiff] will no longer be responsible for chaperoning or supervising the students beyond that which is required to ensure their participation in these competitions. I am providing this letter to your file and the aforementioned consequence in response to this matter and offer you the opportunity to accept this in lieu of my proffering 3020-a charges" (Id.)

At the end of the letter is a paragraph with a line below for Plaintiff's signature. The paragraph provides as follows:

I have read and understand the above letter. I have also had the opportunity to consult with a representative of my employee organization and/or counsel. I understand that my agreement to the entry of the foregoing document on my file, as well as to the action proposed to be taken by the Superintendent of Schools, will constitute a waiver of my rights as a tenured employee pursuant to Education Law, Section 3020-a, including the right to receipt of notice of charges, a hearing on the record, the right to cross- examine witnesses, the right to call witnesses, the right to counsel, and the right to review of appeal as provided by statute.

I agree with the content and terms of the above letter and consent to it being placed in my personnel file. (Id.) The letter is signed by Plaintiff and witnessed by Roschelle, as "Counsel or Union representative." (Id.)

Plaintiff claims that she signed the letter under duress because she was told that if she did not, she would lose her job. (Id. ΒΆ 111.) Moreover, she claims that although other teachers took students on school trips where there were student disciplinary problems, ...


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