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Redhead v. Conference of Seventh-day Adventists

July 26, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dora L. Irizarry, U.S. District Judge


Plaintiff Jewel Redhead filed suit against defendant Conference of Seventh-day Adventists claiming that the Linden Seventh-day Adventists School (the "Linden School") improperly terminated her for being pregnant and unmarried. Plaintiff asserts claims under (1) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, (2) the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq. Upon considering defendant's motion for summary judgment, the court denies the motion for the reasons set forth below.

I. Facts

Plaintiff Jewel Redhead began working as a teacher at the Linden School, located in Laurelton, New York, at the start of the 1998--99 academic year. The Linden School is operated by the Northeastern Conference of Seventh-day Adventists ("Northeastern Conference"). Plaintiff was raised as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. During the 1998--99 and 1999--2000 school years, plaintiff taught third grade at the Linden School. For the 2000--01 school year, the principal of the Linden School asked plaintiff to switch to teaching fifth grade. Plaintiff taught one hour of Bible study per day and spent the remainder of her day teaching secular subjects. Though the Linden School conducts a morning worship service for teachers every day, teachers only attend worship services with students once a year for the School's graduation ceremony. The students who attend the Linden School are not required to be Seventh-day Adventists, though, according to defendant, "[p]arents send their children to Adventists' schools, in part, so their children may obtain an education that complies with the teachings of the Church." (Barnes Decl. ¶ 9.)

At the end of the first week of classes of the 2001--02 school year, sometime in September 2001, plaintiff informed Beverly Cameron ("Ms. Cameron"), the Linden School principal, that she was pregnant. Ms. Cameron asked plaintiff whether she intended to follow through with the pregnancy, to which plaintiff replied that she did, and whether she intended to marry the father of the unborn child, to which plaintiff responded in the negative. Ms. Cameron told plaintiff that she would have to speak to the Superintendent of Schools of the Northeastern Conference, Polly-Anna Prosper Barnes ("Ms. Barnes"), Ms. Cameron's direct supervisor. According to plaintiff, she approached Ms. Cameron a few times to inquire whether Ms. Cameron had spoken to Ms. Barnes. On one occasion, plaintiff recalls Ms. Cameron reporting that Ms. Barnes was surprised at plaintiff's pregnancy and that Ms. Barnes would "get back to [her]." (Redhead Dep. at 84.) In the meantime, plaintiff claims that Ms. Cameron told her to wear loose clothing to conceal her pregnancy. Plaintiff says that she found such comment "offensive" but did not inquire why Ms. Cameron wanted her to cover her stomach. (Id. at 86--88.) Plaintiff also had a conversation with Ms. Cameron about pregnancy benefits during this time. Plaintiff recalls being told by Ms. Cameron sometime in September that she would probably be terminated.

At some point before the termination, Ms. Barnes spoke to plaintiff over the telephone and asked her whether she intended to marry the father of the child. Upon plaintiff's negative response, Ms. Barnes informed plaintiff that she would have to bring the matter to the attention of the governing board of the school and initiate termination proceedings. On November 19, 2001, the School Board of the Northeastern Conference decided to terminate plaintiff "[i]n that [p]laintiff's pregnancy outside of marriage was evidence of fornication." (Barnes Decl. ¶ 14.) By letter dated November 21, 2001, Ms. Barnes notified plaintiff that the Board had voted to terminate her employment, effective as of November 30, 2001, for exhibiting "immoral or unsatisfactory personal conduct inconsistent with the principles of the Seventh-day Adventist Church," as provided in § 3038:99 of the Atlantic Union Conference Education Code ("AUCEC"). (Def.'s Ex. K.) Plaintiff testified at her deposition that when she asked Ms. Cameron why she was being fired for being pregnant, Ms. Cameron responded, "That's how it is done." (Redhead Dep. at 96.)

Plaintiff and defendant present different interpretations regarding whether plaintiff was required to be a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to teach at the Linden School and whether plaintiff had adequate notice of any such policy. Plaintiff disputes Ms. Barnes' statement that every teacher must be a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and relies on the following language from the Linden School's employment application:

Seventh-day Adventist conferences are religiously qualified equal opportunity employers, with the right to prefer Seventh-day Adventists in hiring. . . . Seventh-day Adventist conferences do not discriminate against qualified applicants on account of race, color, sex, age, military veteran status, national origin, ancestry, marital status, or mental or physical handicap/disability. (Def.'s Ex. E at 4 (second emphasis added).) The employment agreement, however, while stating that the Northeastern Conference "wishes to employ personnel who follow the standards and teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church," provides:

Employee agrees to be a member of, and attend regularly, a Seventh-day Adventist Church that is a constituent of the school where Employee is employed. In the case of boarding academics, this means the academy church. Faithful returning of the tithe to the church of membership is a condition of employment. (Def.'s Ex. F (emphasis added).) Plaintiff admitted during her deposition that she signed the employment agreement for her first year at the Linden School without reading it. She remembers signing an agreement for the 1999--2000 school year but not for the 2000--01 school year. Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she recalled being told during her interview that she was expected to observe the precepts of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in order to teach at the Linden School. She also testified that she understood that the Linden School expected her to be and remain a member in good standing of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The employment agreement states that the employee and employer shall "be bound by the policies regarding educational matters . . . as set forth in the Teachers' Handbook, or any other published material attached to [the] agreement, . . . the Atlantic Union Education Code Book [the AUCEC] . . . [,] and the . . . North American Division Working Policy." (Def.'s Ex. F.) The agreement provides that the employee's signature indicates that he or she has read all documents listed in the agreement or that he/she has waived the right to read such documents. (Id.) Section 3038:99 of the AUCEC provides:

Termination is discontinuance of salary and employment at any time by the employing organization, at their sole discretion. An employee may be terminated for, but not limited to, the following reasons: . . . Immoral or unsatisfactory personal conduct inconsistent with the principles of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Def.'s Ex. I.) The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (16th ed., rev. 2000) lists "fornication" under "grievous sins for which members shall be subject to discipline." (Def.'s Ex. J at 184.) Plaintiff does not recall being given a copy of the Teachers' Handbook or the AUCEC. Plaintiff also denies being aware that "immoral or unsatisfactory personal conduct" could be grounds for termination at the Linden School. (Redhead Dep. at 99.) Plaintiff states that she was unaware that having sexual relations outside of marriage was contrary to the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventists. (Id. at 73--74.)

In arguing that she was singled out for termination because of her pregnancy, plaintiff maintains that other teachers at the Linden School were having sexual relations outside of marriage, which she knew based on "talking with them about their relationships." (Redhead Dep. at 79.) However, she admits to having no knowledge whether any member of the Linden School administration has ever been privy to information about such conduct. Plaintiff testified that she was aware of one teacher who taught at the Linden School while pregnant and separated from her husband during at least part of the pregnancy.

Following her termination, plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on August 29, 2002, alleging discrimination based on her gender, pregnancy, and marital status in violation of Title VII. On September 10, 2003, the EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights, indicating that it was closing plaintiff's file because it was "unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes" but that there was no "certif[ication] that the respondent is in compliance with the statutes." (Def.'s Ex. C.)

II. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, 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." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). The court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158--59, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ed. 2d 142 (1970)). In drawing inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, "the court is not entitled to weigh the evidence." St. Pierre v. Dyer, 208 F.3d 394, 404 (2d Cir. 2000). Nevertheless, "[c]onclusory allegations, conjecture, and speculation . . . are insufficient to create a genuine issue of fact." Kerzer v. Kingly Mfg., 156 F.3d 396, 400 (2d Cir. 1998). The court must deny summary judgment "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

III. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The threshold issue to address is defendant's argument that the present case is barred by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Generally, religious organizations have "power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine." Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116, 73 S.Ct. 143, 97 L.Ed. 120 (1952). Section 702 of Title VII provides that the statute does not apply "to a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities." 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e-1. On the other hand, courts have consistently held that "Title VII does not confer upon religious organizations a license to make . . ...

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