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Ferguson v. City of Rochester School Dist.

April 19, 2007

THOMASINA FERGUSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF ROCHESTER SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



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

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Thomasina Ferguson, brought this action against her former employer, the City of Rochester School District ("District"), alleging that the District wrongfully refused to allow plaintiff to rescind her decision to accept a voluntary separation from employment with the District in 2002. The District has moved for summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

At the time of the events in question, plaintiff had been employed by the District for a number of years as a Special Education teacher. In late 2001, plaintiff and other teachers within the District were notified of an upcoming opportunity to participate in the District's Voluntary Employee Separation Agreement ("VESA") program. The VESA program is a cost-cutting measure that was implemented in 2001 pursuant to negotiations between the District and the Rochester Teachers Association ("RTA"), in which more senior, higher-paid teachers who agree to participate in the program are replaced with more-recently hired, lower-paid teachers. In exchange for resigning from their employment, participating teachers receive monetary compensation as well as full health and insurance benefits after they leave the District's employ.

The notice sent to plaintiff stated that participants could choose to resign at the end of the current school year, or at the end of the 2002-03 school year. The notice included an "Irrevocable VESA Election Form," which, if the recipient elected to participate, had to be submitted no later than January 25, 2002. In addition to the caption, the form also stated, inter alia: "This serves as my irrevocable notice of intent to resign under the provisions of the VESA Plan ..."; and "I HEREBY TENDER MY IRREVOCABLE ELECTION TO RESIGN/RETIRE FROM MY EMPLOYMENT WITH THE ROCHESTER CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT ... ." Dkt. #28-6 at 44.*fn1

Plaintiff submitted her signed VESA form on Friday, January 25, 2002, opting to resign after the 2002-2003 school year. She elected to receive $50,000 paid over five years beginning in August 2003, plus fully-paid premiums for basic health insurance for life. Id.

The following Monday, however, January 28, 2002, Ferguson submitted a letter to the District stating, "Since my family situation has changed, I need to rescind the VESA Election Form that I brought in last Friday to Central Office." Dkt. #28-6 at 46. That same day, Nancy Palozzi, the District's Director of Employee Benefits, spoke to Ferguson and told her that Ferguson's VESA election form had already been processed and that her decision was irrevocable. Dkt. #26 ¶ 35; #28-1 ¶ 38; #32 ¶ 6.

Plaintiff spoke to various District officials about this matter over the months following the submission of her VESA form and rescission request. Plaintiff's purported reasons for wanting to rescind her VESA election included statements that her "family situation ha[d] changed," that she and her husband had been thinking about moving to Texas but had decided against it, that she was under duress at the time that she submitted the VESA election form, that she had been taking allergy medication that affected her judgment, that she had been "misinformed" in some unspecified way, and that there were "fiscal changes" bearing upon her decision. Dkt. #28-1 ¶¶ 35-51; #32 ¶ 6. In response, however, Ferguson was consistently told that her decision was irrevocable. Dkt. #28-1 ¶¶ 41-50; #32 ¶ 6.

Pursuant to her VESA election, Ferguson left her employment with the District in Summer 2003, and began receiving her $10,000 annual compensation and insurance benefits. She continues to receive those payments and benefits today. Dkt. #28-1 ¶ 52; #32 ¶ 6.

Plaintiff filed a Notice of Claim with the District on August 7, 2003, alleging that her due process and equal protection rights were violated by the District's denial of her request to revoke her VESA election. Dkt. #28-3 at 2-4. She filed the complaint in this action on August 4, 2004 in New York State Supreme Court, Monroe County, also alleging due process and equal protection claims. The District removed the action to this Court on August 30, 2004, based on federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343(3).*fn2

The Court heard oral argument on defendant's motion on April 12, 2007. At that time, counsel for plaintiff stated on the record that plaintiff was voluntarily withdrawing her due process claim, and proceeding only on the equal protection claim. In addition, I orally denied defendant's motion for summary judgment insofar as it is based on defendant's argument that the action is time-barred. The sole remaining issue, therefore, is whether to grant defendant's motion for summary judgment on the merits of plaintiff's equal protection claim.

DISCUSSION

The basis of plaintiff's equal protection claim is her allegation that "the [District] has permitted certain individuals to rescind their VESA elections, but it has not permitted this Plaintiff to rescind in a similar fashion." Complaint ¶ 9.

It is clear, however, that in fact only one individual has been allowed to rescind her VESA election. In early 2001, another teacher, Jeanne Nix, elected VESA, but then sought to revoke that election after her husband left her. At a deposition in this action, Nix testified that because of the sudden loss of her husband's financial support, she would have faced a severe economic hardship had she gone ahead with her planned resignation, since the ...


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