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Peres v. Oceanside Union Free School District

January 31, 2008

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 ("Superintendent Brown"), Dorie C. Ciulla ("Principal Ciulla") (collectively, the "District Defendants"), and Richard Roschelle ("Roschelle") (together with the District Defendants, hereinafter referred to as "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"). Defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 56. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is granted and this case is dismissed in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

The material facts, drawn from the Complaint and the parties' Local 56.1 Statements, are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Plaintiff, who was born on December 3, 1946, has been employed by the District as a teacher of marketing and business courses at Oceanside High School since approximately 1970; she still holds this position as of today. Plaintiff's position as teacher is tenured. As a tenured teacher, Plaintiff is represented for purposes of collective bargaining by the Oceanside Federation of Teachers, Local 1631 of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO (the "Union"). At all times relevant to the Complaint, Roschelle served as Executive Vice President of the Union.

In addition to her regular teaching duties, for over twenty-eight years, Plaintiff has served as the Oceanside Advisor for the Distributive Education Clubs of America/Association of Marketing and Management Students ("DECA") Program. (Pl.'s Dep. at 24.)

In 1994, a notice of vacancy for the position of Student Activities Coordinator or Student Projects Coordinator ("SP Coordinator") was placed in the mailbox of every teacher at Oceanside High School, including Plaintiff's. The position was also advertised on the bulletin board at the main office at the high school. The SP Coordinator is responsible for coordinating the operation of all extra-curricular activities within the High School. Plaintiff applied for, interviewed, and was ultimately appointed to the SP Coordinator position for the 1994-1995 school year. Plaintiff was 47 years old at the time of her appointment. Each consecutive year, from 1994 through 2003, the District offered Plaintiff a new contract for the SP Coordinator position, which Plaintiff accepted. Thus, Plaintiff was reappointed as SP Coordinator each year through and including the 2003-2004 school year, for which she received an additional annual stipend. According to Plaintiff, the stipend was in the amount of $7,764.00 per year. (Compl. ¶ 41.)

Each tenured teacher at Oceanside High School typically teaches five periods of instruction within his or her tenured area. Because of the added responsibilities that come along with the SP Coordinator position, however, the teacher appointed as SP Coordinator is released from full teaching duties and teaches only one class per day. This teacher still receives full salary, as well as the stipend for service as SP Coordinator.

Prior to her appointment as SP Coordinator for the 1994-1995 school year, Plaintiff taught either four to five classes in her business tenure area. During the time Plaintiff served as SP Coordinator, Plaintiff was required to teach only one class per day in order to provide her sufficient time to devote to her duties as SP Coordinator.*fn1 Plaintiff still received a full teacher's salary as well as the stipend for her service as SP Coordinator.

On June 3, 2004, Plaintiff was notified that her contract as the SP Coordinator would not be renewed for the 2004-2005 school year. 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 in her Role as DECA Advisor

In her position as SP Coordinator, Plaintiff was responsible for signing off on the purchase of supplies for extra-curricular activities once the proper supporting documentation was provided. In September 2001, Plaintiff discovered that her signature had been forged on numerous purchase order requisition forms in the area marked "purchase approved by," indicating that Plaintiff had approved payment to certain vendors for student activity-related expenses. Plaintiff had not authorized her signature to be placed on the forms.

According to Plaintiff, she first reported the forgeries to several school administrators in 2001, including her immediate supervisor Ilene Klein ("Klein"), the Assistant Principal, and then Principal Gerard Cairns. Principal Cairns spoke to Betty Dunwoody, the Student Projects Secretary, who admitted to signing Plaintiff's name on the forms. Ms. Dunwoody was over eighty years old at the time. Plaintiff believed the matter was resolved.

Thereafter, the alleged forgeries continued and in June 2002, Plaintiff reported the situation to Superintendent Brown. Superintendent Brown informed Plaintiff that Ms. Dunwoody was signing Plaintiff's name in order to expedite the paying of bills.

During the 2002-2003 school year, Principal Ciulla became the new principal of Oceanside High School. Plaintiff reported the matter to Principal Ciulla, who advised Plaintiff that Superintendent Brown had informed her of what had transpired the prior year and that she was going to enact a new policy regarding the review of purchase orders. A signature card policy was also instituted.

In or about April 2003, Plaintiff discovered another forgery and reported it to Principal Ciulla. According to Plaintiff, Principal Ciulla told Plaintiff that she spoke to two other individuals involved in the purchase order and they admitted it was a forgery. She also allegedly told Plaintiff not to "put her in the middle of this again, to solve it [her]self." (Pl.'s Dep. at 120.) Plaintiff made no further complaints of forgery after April 2003.

At the conclusion of the 2002-2003 school year, Ms. Dunwoody fell ill and went on sick leave. She never returned to school after her illness and passed away in 2004.

In or about May 2003, while Ms. Dunwoody was out on medical leave, Plaintiff was present when the Student Activities Fund Safe was opened and over $50,000 was discovered to be inside against District policy. According to Plaintiff, this policy mandates that once cash comes into a school building, it be deposited within twenty-four hours. (Pl.'s Dep. at 134.) The money in the safe, however, had been sitting there for months. (Id.) Plaintiff testified that Ms. Dunwoody was the only person who could have placed the money in the safe. (Id. at 134-35.) After discovering the money, the District bookkeeper came to the school and deposited the funds. (Id. at 136.) Plaintiff never accused Ms. Dunwoody of taking funds from the safe. (Id. at 130.)

Thereafter, Plaintiff was offered and accepted a contract for the SP Coordinator position for the 2003-2004 school year. The following year, on June 3, 2004, Plaintiff was notified that her contract as the SP Coordinator would not be renewed for the 2004-2005 school year, see discussion infra.

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

From April 30 through May 5, 2004, and in her role as DECA Advisor, Plaintiff chaperoned a school trip to Nashville, Tennessee with nineteen of her students. Plaintiff contends that both she and Klein (Plaintiff's supervisor) were jointly in charge of the trip. On May 3, 2004, DECA hosted a dance that the students were required to attend. Instead of attending the dance, three students went to a club without permission from Plaintiff or any other adult chaperone. One of the students was physically injured at the club and had to be taken to the hospital by Plaintiff. Additionally, two students who attended the dance failed to return by the 12:00 a.m. curfew.

On May 4, 2004, a National DECA Code of Conduct disciplinary hearing was held in Nashville. At the hearing, it was determined that five students violated the DECA Code of Conduct.

Upon the students' return to New York, a meeting was held on May 6, 2004. Superintendent Brown, Principal Ciulla, Assistant Superintendents Brandon and Bannich, Plaintiff, Roschelle (Plaintiff's Union representative), and James Skinner ("Dr. Skinner") all attended the meeting. (See Pl.'s Dep. at 212.) Superintendent Brown questioned Plaintiff regarding the events that transpired during the DECA trip. Thereafter, Superintendent Brown met with the Board of Education during its executive session to discuss potential disciplinary actions to be taken against Plaintiff. Options discussed included the pursuit of disciplinary charges against Plaintiff or, alternatively, issuance of a letter-to-the-file. Superintendent Brown then met with Roschelle and Dr. Skinner regarding the potential disciplinary action contemplated by the District regarding Plaintiff's conduct during the DECA trip.

On May 20, 2004, Roschelle, as Plaintiff's Union representative, discussed with Plaintiff the possibility of the District offering her a letter-to-the-file instead of pursuing disciplinary charges pursuant. When asked by Roschelle if she would sign a letter instead of being charged, Plaintiff responded that it depended on the contents of the letter.

According to Roschelle, he discussed Plaintiff's situation with Conrad Lower, Esq., a Labor Relations Specialist employed by New York State United Teachers. Mr. Lower advised Roschelle that the District did have sufficient grounds to pursue disciplinary charges against Plaintiff based on her alleged conduct on the DECA trip. Mr. Lower further advised Roschelle that the letter-to-the-file would be a minimal penalty which was preferable to the potential of Plaintiff having to defend herself against formal disciplinary charges.

On Friday, May 21, 2004, Superintendent Brown provided Plaintiff with a copy of a letter to be placed in her file. The letter, which is written by Superintendent 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. (Defs.' Ex. N.) 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.)

After receipt of the letter, Plaintiff discussed its contents with both Roschelle and Dr. Skinner. She also consulted with two friends who were private attorneys. Roschelle advised Plaintiff that he had discussed the letter with the President of the Union and Mr. Lower and that both had agreed that it was wise for Plaintiff to sign the letter-to-the-file rather than become the subject of formal disciplinary charges under the Education Law. Roschelle explained that once the District accused her of misconduct under section 3020-a of the Education Law, the District could terminate her teaching position.

On Monday May 24, 2004, three days after having received the letter, Plaintiff signed it. Plaintiff made two handwritten changes to the letter, indicating that she was not a "judge" at the DECA Conference but rather served as a "proctor." Plaintiff's signature was witnessed by Roschelle as "Counsel or Union representative." After signing the letter, Plaintiff gave Roschelle and Dr. Skinner a bottle of wine to say "thank you" for their assistance. (Pl.'s Dep. at 335.) Nonetheless, Plaintiff now claims that she was coerced by Roschelle into signing the letter in that he told her that if she did not sign, she would lose her job. (Id. at 341-42.)

A nearly identical letter outlining the incident that occurred in Nashville on the DECA trip was presented to Klein, Plaintiff's supervisor, who accompanied Plaintiff on the trip Unlike Plaintiff, Klein did not sign her letter. Instead, after consulting with her union representative, she decided to request legal representation from the Society of Administrators of New York State. The letter-to-the-file presented to Klein was later revised and Klein was not required to sign the revised letter, which was placed in her personnel file along with her rebuttal.

Following the events regarding the May 2004 letter, Plaintiff was again offered a contract to continue as DECA Advisor for the 2004-2005 school year, which Plaintiff accepted. In fact, as of the date of her deposition, viz. February 3, 2006, Plaintiff was still the DECA Advisor. (See Pl.'s Dep. at 22.)

C. Plaintiff's Termination as SP Coordinator

On June 3, 2004, Principal Ciulla met with Plaintiff and notified her that her contract as SP Coordinator would not be renewed for the 2004-2005 school year. Plaintiff's status as a tenured teacher and as DECA Advisor did not change.

According to Plaintiff, during the June 3, 2004 meeting, Principal Ciulla explained to Plaintiff that her decision was based on, inter alia, Plaintiff's failure to hold a homecoming meeting and her failure to hold town council meetings. (Pl.'s Dep. at 45-51.) Principal Ciulla also informed Plaintiff that "[she] wanted to dump [Plaintiff] last year and [Superintendent Brown] said back off, so [she] backed off last year." (Id. at 49.) Principal Ciulla testified that there were many reasons Plaintiff's contract was not renewed, including that Plaintiff was not competent at her job, she did not build up student participation, she did not hold monthly meetings which she had been asked to do, and she was not well-organized in working with teachers and getting things coordinated. (Ciulla Dep. at 390.)*fn2

On June 7, 2004, the SP Coordinator vacancy was advertised in each teacher's school mailbox and posted on the bulletin board in the school's main office. Four teachers applied for the position. Principal Ciulla, along with Associate Principal Geraldine DeCarlo, interviewed each applicant. Three of the four applicants were under the age 40. Ultimately, Julia Nappi, a teacher of social studies at Oceanside High School, who was thirty-eight years old at the time, was offered a contract for the 2004-2005 school year.

From June through September 2004, Plaintiff pursued a grievance through the Union regarding the non-renewal of her SP Coordinator contract. After proceeding through the first three steps, which were all denied, on October 10, 2004, the Union served its demand for initiation of the fourth and final stage, ...


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