Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Woods v. Enlarged City School Dist. of Newburgh

February 7, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conner, Sr. D.J.


Plaintiff Denise Woods, an African American woman, brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981a, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et. seq. ("Title VII") and Article 15 of the New York Human Rights Law § 296 (the "New York Human Rights Law"), against defendants Enlarged City School District of Newburgh (the "District") and the District's Superintendent Dr. Richard Nicholas Johns ("Johns") (collectively, "defendants").*fn1 Plaintiff alleges that defendants: (1) subjected her to a racially hostile working environment in violation of Title VII; (2) terminated her employment on the basis of her race in violation of Title VII; and (3) retaliated against her, in violation of Title VII and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, for plaintiff's and her husband's statements to Johns that District personnel were racially discriminating against her. Defendants move for summary judgment on all counts. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion is granted.


Viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff,*fn2 the record reveals the following relevant facts.*fn3 On August 30, 2000, the District hired plaintiff as a Program Specialist at Gardnertown Fundamental Magnet School ("Gardnertown"), an elementary school consisting of kindergarten through sixth grade. (See Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2; Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2.) The Principal of Gardnertown, Steven Runberg, a Caucasian male, recommended plaintiff for the position, which was a probationary appointment for two years. (See id.) The position of Program Specialist was categorized as a teacher's position and not at the administrative level. (See Diaconis Decl., Ex. T (Pl. Dep. at 24-25); Diaconis Decl., Ex. F. (Henderson Dep. at 90).)

Plaintiff alleges that, at the onset of her employment, several District employees immediately made her feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed. (See Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 4; Complt. ¶¶ 8-9, 13.) For example, after she accepted the position of Program Specialist, Runberg introduced plaintiff and her family to his secretary, Pat Crosetta ("Crosetta"), who, according to plaintiff, did not acknowledge their presence. (See Complt. ¶ 8.) Similarly, plaintiff asserts that when Runberg introduced plaintiff and her family to two teachers, "[b]oth of the teachers acted as if [she] and her family were invisible . . . ." (See id. ¶ 9.) Although plaintiff claims that Runberg failed to take corrective action with respect to either incident, plaintiff at that time did not inform Runberg of the hostility that she perceived during these introductions. (See id. ¶ 10.)

The remainder of plaintiff's allegations almost exclusively involve three Caucasian teachers, Linda Apuzzo ("Apuzzo"), Eve Gordon ("Gordon") and Robin Phillips ("Phillips"),*fn4 whom plaintiff and her counsel refer to as the "clique" throughout plaintiff's submissions to the Court. Plaintiff claims that these women persistently harassed her or acted disrespectful towards her. (See generally Complt; Pl. Affm. ¶ 3.) For example, plaintiff alleges that, in September 2000, when Runberg first introduced her to the entire staff as the new Program Specialist, they did not clap along with the remainder of the staff in attendance. (See id. ¶ 14.) Plaintiff asserts that they stared at her "with looks of disgust on their faces." (See id.) Shortly thereafter, Apuzzo, Gordon and Phillips went to plaintiff's office and one of them indicated that plaintiff "didn't know what she was in for, for taking the job." (See id. ¶ 15.) Gordon also stated that "I'm telling you that you better be prepared. I hope that you're well organized." (See id. ¶ 16.) On other occasions, according to plaintiff, "[t]hey would come to [her] office or confront her in the hallway and ask her a question[, and w]hile [she was] in the middle of responding to their inquiry[,] they would say forget it or you probably don't know anyway, I'll just go ask Principal Runberg[.]" (See id. ¶ 18.)

On July 25, 2001, on Runberg's recommendation, the District appointed plaintiff as Assistant Principal of Gardnertown, an administrative position, for a three-year probationary period ending on August 15, 2004. (See Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 3; Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 3; Diaconis Decl., Ex. B; Diaconis Decl., Ex. T (Pl. Dep. at 227).) Plaintiff was promoted in accordance with a District directive mandating that all Program Specialists be reclassified as Assistant Principals. (See Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 3; Pl. Affm. ¶ 2.) As Assistant Principal, plaintiff reported directly to Runberg who in turn reported to the District's administrators, including Assistant Superintendents Olivia Henderson ("Henderson") and Dr. James Dupree ("Dupree"), both of whom are African American. (See Diaconis Reply Decl., Ex. A (Johns Dep. at 36); Pl. Affm. ¶ 3; Defs. Reply Mem. Supp. Summ. J. at 2.)

Plaintiff alleges that upon her promotion to Assistant Principal, Apuzzo, Gordon and Phillips continued to treat her with disrespect. (See generally Complt. ¶¶ 24-180; see also Diaconis Decl., Ex. D (Runberg Dep. at 102); Sussman Affm., Ex. 11 (L. Woods Dep. at 62).) For example, in October 2001, according to plaintiff, Phillips accused plaintiff of poor judgment in the presence of a parent. (See Complt. ¶ 31.) Plaintiff reported this to Runberg, but he failed to take any disciplinary action against Phillips and instead "interrogated [plaintiff] as if she was the problem." (See id. ¶ 32.) A month later, while at a staff meeting, Phillips openly criticized a joint decision made by plaintiff and Runberg by shouting, "I don't believe this." (See id. ¶ 35.) According to plaintiff, Runberg again failed to reprimand Phillips or otherwise indicate that her behavior was unprofessional. (See id.)

Plaintiff also alleges that, in December 2001, she entered Gordon's classroom to conduct a teacher observation, and Gordon informed her in a nasty manner, "You're not observing me[,] Mr. Runberg is!" (See id.) Plaintiff alleges that when she approached Runberg regarding this incident, he responded, "You don't want to mess with the union, I'm doing this for your own good!" (See id. ¶ 45.) According to plaintiff, this demonstrated Runberg's lack of respect for plaintiff and his proclivity to support the teachers rather than her. (See id. ¶ 46.)

Indeed, plaintiff alleges that Runberg repeatedly sided with the teachers and failed to support her. (See generally Complt.; see Pl. Affm. ¶ 3; Pl. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 2.) For example, plaintiff asserts that, at a meeting in August 2001, Phillips expressed strong opposition to the District's directive to reclassify Program Specialists as Assistant Principals which caused plaintiff to feel "personally and professionally attacked." (See Complt. ¶¶ 26-27.) Plaintiff alleges that Runberg did not defend the District's position, thereby condoning Phillips's "disrespectful" behavior towards plaintiff.*fn5 (See id. ¶ 26.) In addition, upon her promotion to Assistant Principal, plaintiff sent Runberg a memorandum regarding the reassignment of her duties, but, according to plaintiff, he never considered it and "made the teachers aware of that." (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 65); Complt. ¶ 24.) Plaintiff asserts that Runberg thereby failed to "affirm her as a part of his team working toward the good of the school and the students." (See Complt.¶ 24.)

In November 2001, plaintiff had a dispute with Phillips that ultimately led Runberg to convene a meeting between the two in an effort to improve their working relationship. (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 48).) While the events leading up to the meeting are a bit unclear as a result of the inadequacies of the parties' submissions and the witnesses' lack of recollection of the incident, plaintiff submits that Phillips openly criticized plaintiff's handling of an incident on a school bus and threatened to notify the NTA of the situation. (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 49); Complt. ¶ 28.) Plaintiff alleges that Runberg was present when this occurred but failed to offer her any support. (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 49); Complt. ¶ 30.)

Subsequently, plaintiff went to Phillips's classroom and confronted her, stating, "You know Mrs. Phillips, I give respect and I demand it. I don't appreciate how you talked to me in that tone about a bus referral that is an administrative issue." (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 50-51).) Phillips thereafter requested a meeting with Runberg regarding the manner in which plaintiff confronted her.*fn6 (See id. (Pl. Dep. at 51).) After Runberg informed plaintiff of Phillips's request for a meeting, plaintiff sent Runberg a letter, with a carbon copy to Phillips, requesting that Runberg inform her of the purpose of the meeting and the parties who were expected to attend. (See Diaconis Decl., Ex. C.) Plaintiff requested that the administrative union delegate attend the meeting, but he was unavailable and plaintiff therefore attended the meeting without union representation. (See Complt. ¶¶ 39-40.) The meeting was attended by plaintiff, Phillips, Runberg and Gordon (in her capacity as the teachers' union delegate). (See id. ¶ 40.) Although plaintiff claims that "Runberg offered [her] no support [at the meeting] and allowed the clique of teachers to viciously attack her," (see id. ¶ 40), when testifying at her deposition regarding this specific meeting, she made no mention of the manner in which Runberg handled the situation. (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 51-52).)

Around the same time, plaintiff also experienced a confrontation with Apuzzo, who ultimately filed a written complaint against plaintiff as a result thereof. (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 64); Diaconis Decl., Ex. E.) The confrontation arose from plaintiff's duty as Program Specialist to develop the camera film of teachers who took photographs at student assemblies and other events and to deliver the photographic prints to the respective teachers. (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 64, 66).) Plaintiff claims, however, that upon becoming Assistant Principal, she reassigned this task and was no longer responsible for it.*fn7 (See id.) To plaintiff's dismay, Apuzzo sent plaintiff a note requesting her photographs which plaintiff characterized as "nasty" and "demanding." (See id.) Plaintiff immediately reported the incident to Runberg, stating:

I gave you the memo. I'm the assistant principal, I don't go back and forth delivering film to the camera shop any more. That's either the teacher's responsibility or somebody else's.

(See id. (Pl. Dep. at 66).) Runberg told plaintiff not to "worry about the film." (See id.)

When Apuzzo again asked plaintiff for her photographs, plaintiff requested a meeting with her in plaintiff's office. (See id.) After Apuzzo did not come to plaintiff's office, plaintiff went to her classroom and instructed her to excuse herself from her class to discuss the situation. (See id.) In the hallway outside of Apuzzo's classroom, plaintiff stated: "Mrs. Apuzzo, I do not deliver film any more. I am the assistant principal. I gave Mr. Runberg a memo stating that . . . ." (See id.) According to plaintiff, Apuzzo began screaming which was audible to the students inside the classroom and to another teacher and her class that were entering the building from recess. (See id. (Pl. Dep. at 66-67).) Plaintiff testified that she walked away and immediately reported the incident to Runberg who then discussed the incident with Apuzzo. (See id. (Pl. Dep. at 67).) Runberg also requested to see the note that initiated the confrontation, but plaintiff refused to provide it to him and ultimately destroyed it. (See id. (Pl. Dep. at 67-68).)

On December 10, 2001, Apuzzo filed a written complaint with Runberg as a result of this incident. (See Diaconis Decl., Ex. E.) She claimed that plaintiff "yelled at her in front of [her] students and colleague." (See Diaconis Suppl. Decl., Ex. Z (Apuzzo Dep. at 41).) In a letter to Runberg dated December 10, 2001, she wrote:

I am writing to you regarding the incident in which I was spoken to unprofessionally by an administrator. There seems to be an ongoing situation between me and Denise Woods that I need to make you aware of. Attached is [sic] letter*fn8 that gives greater detail of numerous situations which I have experienced at Gardnertown School. Some of the situations the letter is regarding are listed below. [(1)] Unprofessional conduct in front of students [(2)] Parental phone call not communicated back to teacher [(3)] Incorrect information on referral letter [(4)] Lack of support in instructional areas [(5)] Lack of providing answers for questions on a regular basis . . . . [This] is certainly not the first time that I have found Denise to be unprofessional toward me. I work far to [sic] hard to be professional in my position, I do not think I am asking too much to expect the same from her. (See Diaconis Decl., Ex. E.) On December 14, 2001, Gordon, acting as the NTA union delegate, also sent a letter to Runberg, signed by both Apuzzo and herself, requesting that Runberg place a "counseling memo" in plaintiff's file indicating that it is inappropriate to discipline teachers in the presence of students or staff. (See id.) It also requested that plaintiff "be advised that should another such incident occur, disciplinary action will be taken." (See id.) In response, Runberg sent Gordon a letter, dated December 20, 2001, with carbon copies to Apuzzo, plaintiff and Henderson,*fn9 indicating that they were all required to attend a meeting on January 3, 2002 and that Henderson will "assist with facilitating the meeting in a mediation style." (See id.) However, according to plaintiff, the day prior to the scheduled meeting, Runberg informed her that it was cancelled. (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 83); Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 7.)

Plaintiff alleges that at the same time, she requested a meeting with district-wide administrators, and a meeting was subsequently held and attended by Johns, Mary Ellen Leimer ("Leimer"),*fn10 Mary Ann Joyce ("Joyce")*fn11 and Runberg.*fn12 (See Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 6; Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 70-71).) At the meeting, they discussed the incident involving plaintiff and Apuzzo, including the scheduled January 3rd meeting and Henderson's anticipated role as a mediator. (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 72).) There was reference to a "four-page letter" written by Apuzzo that alleged several complaints against plaintiff.*fn13 (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 72); Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 6.) When plaintiff realized that they were discussing a letter that she had never seen and did not know even existed, she felt "betrayed." (See Sussman Affm., Ex. 1 (Pl. Dep. at 73).) When she asked Runberg why she was not informed of this letter prior to the meeting, he said that he did not want to upset her. (See id.)

Plaintiff alleges that despite the meeting with administrators, Apuzzo, Gordon and Phillips repeatedly attempted to undermine her authority while in the presence of parents and other teachers. For example, plaintiff alleges:

On January 8, 2002, . . . Phillips, a teacher and a union delegate, ambushed and humiliated [me] by bringing up a non agenda topic at a Compact Meeting that included parents. The topic that was improperly shoved into the discussion, once again, dealt with my job duties and the description of those duties. (See Complt. ¶ 58.) Moreover, the minutes to this meeting, contrary to normal practice, were placed in each teacher's mailbox, which, according to plaintiff, was "done in order to further embarrass and humiliate . . . plaintiff . . . ." (See id. ¶ 64.) Plaintiff asserts that subsequently, on January 16, 2002, parents confronted her and asked her to explain the role of the Assistant Principal; for example, one parent, a friend of Apuzzo, Gordon and Phillips, inquired, "Do you just walk around in heels and smile?" (See id. ¶ 61.) Plaintiff alleges that Runberg failed to take any remedial action with respect to Phillips's actions at the Compact Meeting, the distribution of the minutes to the teaching staff and the parent's subsequent comment.*fn14 (See id. ¶¶ 61, 65.) Additionally, on February 27, 2002, the faculty and staff established a committee to discuss issues regarding the school administration, including the effectiveness of the position of Assistant Principal. (See id. ¶ 72.) According to plaintiff, Runberg approved this topic of discussion, thereby undermining her authority in the presence of the faculty and staff. (See id.)

As tension grew between plaintiff and Apuzzo, Gordon and Phillips, Runberg scheduled two meetings with plaintiff to discuss her role as an administrator and other related issues. Runberg notified plaintiff that she was obligated to attend a meeting on April 19, 2002, but plaintiff "refused to attend." (See Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 9; Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 9; Complt. ¶¶ 88-89.) Plaintiff alleges:

On April 19, 2002, [w]hen [plaintiff] arrived at her office on this day the agenda [for the meeting with Runberg] was on her chair. The agenda stated the topics to be: Administrator's Role and "Other." [Plaintiff], based on previous meetings, knew that "Other" was a code to ambush and attack her at will. [Plaintiff] informed Principal Runberg that she refused to attend the meeting and discuss her role again with the "clique." She further stated that she was aware that he was her supervisor and that refusing to attend the meeting is an act of insubordination, but that she could not be publicly humiliated again in front of the "clique" of teachers. . . . Principal Runberg stated that if [plaintiff] did not attend the meeting he would be forced to write [her] up. [Plaintiff] responded by stating: ["]Please make sure that I get a copy.["] (See Complt. ¶¶ 88-89; Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 9.)

Runberg did not take disciplinary action against plaintiff at this time, but scheduled another meeting on May 13, 2002, of which he notified plaintiff by letter dated May 1, 2002. (See Diaconis Decl., Ex. H; Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10.) However, plaintiff again failed to attend, even after being warned that her absence would constitute insubordination. (See Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10; Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 9-10; Complt. ¶ 93.) Plaintiff claims that she did not attend because Runberg scheduled the meeting at a time when her attorney was unable to attend, despite Runberg's promise that she "could have a representative of her choice" at the meeting.*fn15 (See Complt. ¶¶ 90-91; Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff alleges:

Runberg came to [plaintiff's] office and said sarcastically, "I suggest you attend this meeting. If you don't, I'm writing you up on insubordination." [Plaintiff] responded that she would not attend without legal representation. Principal Runberg then stated: "Fine you'll get an insubordination letter in your file."

(See Complt. ¶ 93.) The meeting nonetheless proceeded in the absence of plaintiff and was attended by Apuzzo, Gordon, Phillips, Runberg, Henderson and Frank Colone, the teachers' union delegate. (See id. ¶ 94.) Plaintiff was extremely upset that they met in her absence. (See id. ¶ 95.)

On May 14, 2002, Runberg sent plaintiff a letter indicating that her absence at the April 19th and May 13th meetings constituted insubordination. (See Diaconis Decl., Ex. I.) The letter stated:

On two occasions, April 19 and May 13, 2002, I have requested that you attend meetings with teachers and myself. The meetings have been planned to address the concern of the teachers. On both occasions you have refused to attend. These actions constitute insubordination and will lead to disciplinary action. This document is to be placed in your employee personnel file. . . . (See id.)

Shortly thereafter, on May 23, 2002, plaintiff made her first complaint to Johns that she was being subjected to harassment by Apuzzo, Gordon and Phillips and that Runberg was unsupportive and ineffectual in handling her complaints regarding their behavior. (See Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 11; Complt. ¶ 96.) However, she did not charge that the harassment was racially motivated.*fn16 She also requested a transfer to North Junior High School, and, according to plaintiff, Johns responded: "Denise just hang in there until the end of June. If a position opens in North, I'll put you there." (See Pl. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 11; Complt. ¶ 96.) However, when such a position became available, plaintiff was not transferred because, according to Johns and Dupree, the District did not want to transfer plaintiff while she had unresolved personnel issues at Gardnertown, particularly in light of the fact that North Junior High School needed a strong administrator. (See Diaconis Suppl. Decl., Ex. Y (Dupree Dep. at 16-17); Diaconis Reply ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.