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Woodard v. Monticello Central School Dist.

December 1, 2008

ELIZABETH WOODARD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MONTICELLO CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, RICHARD FELLER, JACOB BILLIG, SUSAN HORTON, VIVIAN LIFF, EUGENE NESIN, ALYCE VAN ETTEN, JOHN PAVESE, ROBERT ROSENGARD, ROBERT STEWART, AND EILEEN P. CASEY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kenneth M. Karas, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Elizabeth Woodard brings this action alleging race discrimination in connection with her termination as a high school teacher employed by the Monticello Central School District (the "District"). Plaintiff, who is African-American, seeks relief against the District, its former superintendent, and current and former members of its board of education (collectively, "Defendants"), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, and 1985.*fn1 Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint ("Amended Complaint") seeks "front pay, back pay, compensatory damages, compensation for mental anguish, punitive damages, reinstatement, disbursements, costs, reasonable attorneys' fees, and pre-judgment interest." (First Am. Compl. ("AC") 1.) Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, Defendants' Motion is granted.

I. Background

A. Facts*fn2

1. Plaintiff's Hiring

Plaintiff was hired by the District's Board of Education (the "Board") in 2002 upon the recommendation of Defendant Eileen P. Casey ("Casey"), then the superintendent of schools for the District. (Defs.' Local Rule 56.1 Statement ("Defs.' Rule 56.1") ¶ 1.) Casey was acquainted with Plaintiff prior to 2002, as Casey had served as superintendent for the District since 1993 (Aff. of Eileen Casey in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Casey Aff.") ¶ 1), and Plaintiff had been a parent of a District student and a substitute teacher for the District (Aff. of Craig M. Bonnist in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Bonnist Aff.") Ex. 2 (Deposition of Eileen Casey ("Casey Dep.") 9)). Upon the recommendation of Monticello High School ("MHS") principal William Stickney ("Stickney"), Casey interviewed Plaintiff and recommended to the Board that Plaintiff be hired. (Id. 17-18; Casey Aff. ¶ 2.) At the time, Casey knew that Plaintiff was African-American. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 ¶ 32.) The Board appointed Plaintiff to a two-year probationary term as a business teacher at MHS.*fn3 (Id. ¶ 2; AC ¶ 22.) Plaintiff was assigned to teach Accounting, Introduction to Occupations, and Keyboarding. (Casey Dep. 19.)

2. Plaintiff's 2002-03 Evaluations

Over the course of the 2002-03 school year, Plaintiff was evaluated several times by supervisors. In September 2002, Assistant Principal Janine Carpenter ("Carpenter") evaluated Plaintiff's instruction of a Keyboarding class, and in her report praised Plaintiff for her "clearly visible" "efforts to build [students'] confidence" and her "excellent" keyboarding lesson. (Bonnist Aff. Ex. 3 (Sept. 13, 2002 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).)

In October 2002, Carpenter evaluated Plaintiff's Introduction to Occupations class, in which Plaintiff delivered a lesson on entrepreneurship. Carpenter's report stated that Plaintiff "works to personalize her lessons" and "understands that narrative or story is a strong teaching device." (Id. (Oct. 15, 2002 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).) However, the report also stated that Plaintiff's definition of "entrepreneur" was unclear, that Plaintiff failed to explicitly connect an example (a dot-com web address) to the definition she offered, that students were frustrated that Plaintiff gave them an ungraded quiz but did not promptly tell them that it would be ungraded, that some students were standing up at the end of the period when homework was assigned and did not leave class with the assignment, that Plaintiff's visual aids were "too small to be effective," that classroom rules were not "explicit and posted," and that the "summarization of the lesson was lost because the students were standing." (Id.)

In March and April 2003, Principal Stickney evaluated two of Plaintiff's Keyboarding classes. His first report stated that Plaintiff's students "all knew what was expected of them" and that Plaintiff's lesson was "appropriate," but that students were "not prepared for the end of the period" and thus Plaintiff should "pay attention to this time so that meaningful closure can be given." (Id. (Mar. 28, 2003 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).) His second report stated that Plaintiff "made good use of a computer and projector to model the topics of the day's lessons" and "made a conscious effort to incorporate a summary at the end of the lesson," but that Plaintiff should "make sure all the students are attentive" at the end of the lesson "as some were focused on cleaning up and saving their work." (Id. (Apr. 1, 2003 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).)

Plaintiff's year-end "Summative Evaluation" by Assistant Principal Carpenter stated that Plaintiff "is a positive person who is concerned about the success of her students." (Id. (May 28, 2003 Summative Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).) The evaluation stated that Plaintiff was concerned for the "inclusion of students not typically involved in school organizations" and was therefore "developing a Cultural Club and would like to have a fashion show for our students in the near future." (Id.) The evaluation recommended that Plaintiff "continue to work to improve her mastery of content subject matter in all areas that she teaches" and present knowledge to students "through assignments that are accurate and meaningful for the [high school] level." (Id.) The evaluation also stated that Plaintiff "must be on time" and must inform the head teacher if she is late, that lesson plans "need to be organized and written to meet the structure of block periods and be consistent in quality," that teaching materials should be "ready to be used for classroom instruction when the period begins," and that Plaintiff should "[m]aintain shared [classroom] space neatly." (Id.)

Casey was informed by "building-level supervisors who directly observed and evaluated Plaintiff" of several perceived deficiencies in Plaintiff's job performance during the 2002-03 school year: "lack of content knowledge as a business teacher; lack of organization; failure to report to her job on time; failure to notify the head teacher when she was late; inability to provide clear instruction to students; poor lesson plans; lack of planning and preparation for classes; and failure to provide materials to students during class." (Casey Aff. ¶ 3.)

3. Efforts to Improve Plaintiff's Performance in 2002-03

Carpenter's written evaluation of Plaintiff's October 15, 2002 Introduction to Occupations class indicated that prior to that class period, Plaintiff "expressed that she was having difficulty developing the content subject matter" for the class, which led to a meeting between Plaintiff, Carpenter, and Wendy Levinson, head teacher of the business department. (Bonnist Aff. Ex. 3 (Oct. 15, 2002 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).) After the meeting and Carpenter's subsequent observation of Plaintiff's October 15 class, Carpenter recommended that Plaintiff meet with Levinson in a "task force," one day per week for five weeks, "specifically to work on development of lessons that reflect a solid content area knowledge and pedagogical structure in Introduction to Occupations and Accounting." (Id.; Aff. of Wendy Levinson in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Levinson Aff.") ¶ 3.)

Levinson met with Plaintiff as recommended, offered Plaintiff lesson plans and materials used by other business teachers, and invited Plaintiff to observe classes taught by herself as well as classes taught by a veteran business teacher, Susan Bahrenburg. (Levinson Aff. ¶ 4.) After the conclusion of the five-week period, Levinson continued to assist Plaintiff in reviewing her lessons and exams, spoke with Plaintiff about teaching, and offered to meet with Plaintiff over the summer. (Id. ¶ 5.) Levinson also asked Bahrenburg to provide assistance to Plaintiff in teaching Accounting. (Aff. of Susan Bahrenburg in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Bahrenburg Aff.") ¶ 3.) Bahrenburg provided Plaintiff with various materials that she had compiled during her years of teaching, and invited Plaintiff to visit her classes. (Id. ¶ 4.)*fn4

Prior to the start of the 2003-04 school year, Plaintiff was relieved of teaching Accounting and was assigned to teach only Introduction to Occupations and Keyboarding. (Levinson Aff. ¶ 9.) This change was made "in an effort to reduce her work load and preparation time and to increase her opportunity for improvement." (Id.)

4. Plaintiff's 2003-04 Evaluations

In September 2003, Principal Stickney evaluated Plaintiff's Introduction to Occupations class and wrote in his report that Plaintiff "ma[d]e the material relevant to the students by relating it to their everyday experiences," that "students seemed to enjoy the class and were cooperative," and that "students interacted very positively." (Bonnist Aff. Ex. 3 (Sept. 19, 2003 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).) However, Stickney also stated that Plaintiff failed to summarize the lesson at the end of the class, though there was "some class time remaining" and "ample time for a summary." (Id.)

In November 2003, Assistant Principal Carpenter evaluated an Introduction to Occupations class in which Plaintiff taught a lesson on filling out income tax forms by having the class go through a 1040EZ form line by line. (Id. (Nov. 17, 2003 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).) According to Carpenter's evaluation, Plaintiff "stated that the W-2 is sent from the Federal Government," and Carpenter "corrected" Plaintiff and "directed the students to the example of a W-2 on a previous page." (Id.) The evaluation also stated that Plaintiff conducted "[a]n unclear discussion... of who is eligible for unemployment and how they determine the amount. Mrs. Woodard stated,'if you were making $500, you'd get half of it' and'you'd get a nice amount.'" (Id.) According to the evaluation, Plaintiff, after asking students to state the purpose of a Social Security number, "made the statement,'there is money involved in the SS card,'" which was "confusing to the students," as the funding of the Social Security system is "not part of the 1040EZ process." (Id.) The evaluation also stated that Plaintiff made references to a booklet related to the tax form, asked students if they brought in the booklet, and suggested that the class would be looking at the booklet; neither Plaintiff nor the students had the booklet, as it was "not available at this time of year." (Id.) Carpenter's evaluation concluded: "It appears to me that Mrs. Woodard's knowledge of the concepts, vocabulary, and process [sic] of this topic is not well developed, resulting in confusion for students in the room. While there was an order of events outlined in her planbook, the lesson did not indicate thorough planning for content, materials or time usage." (Id.)

In February 2004, Carpenter evaluated Plaintiff's Introduction to Occupations class again. Carpenter's report stated that Plaintiff gave students a quiz that they had already taken (Plaintiff said that she did this "so that they really knew it"), that students did not provide accurate definitions of any of the vocabulary terms that were the subject of the quiz, and that later in the class period Plaintiff used visual aids that were not clearly written. (Id. (Feb. 9, 2004 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).) The report also stated: "The inappropriate, rude and disrespectful behaviors exhibited by some students in this room affected the learning process. The following behaviors need to be eliminated: late[nes]s to class, speaking out of turn in a rude manner, not having materials, and standing up, packing up and speaking to one another while the teacher was still at the board. At this point in the year, these issues should be under control." (Id.)

Stickney observed Plaintiff's Introduction to Occupations class in March 2004. Stickney's report criticized Plaintiff's management of the students' time, stated that Plaintiff should "clos[e] the door when the noise from the hallway is distracting," recommended that Plaintiff refrain from "handing out papers and giving instructions to accompany those papers while the students are working," and noted that, although Plaintiff never made it clear what the best solution to a particular question was, "the students were repeating what they said as a summary." (Id. (Mar. 18, 2004 Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).)

Stickney's year-end "Summative Evaluation" of Plaintiff stated that Plaintiff "is a caring individual whose concern for students has been evident throughout the year," and described Plaintiff as "instrumental" in developing extracurricular student activities. (Id. (Mar. 22, 2004 Summative Evaluation, Pl.'s Personnel File).) The evaluation stated that "while there were organizational and planning problems" with the "cultural/fashion show" planned by Plaintiff, "the show was well intended and appreciated by the participating students." (Id.) However, the evaluation also concluded that "adequate progress has not been achieved" on two of Plaintiff's three "Performance Objectives," as "a thorough knowledge of the subject matter has not been demonstrated," and Plaintiff's practice of beginning her class with a quiz that is "followed up with the information on the quiz being taught to the students... does not allow for proper assessment of the student[s'] knowledge." (Id.) Stickney's evaluation also stated that "planning and preparation continues to be a concern," due to "instances where materials were presented in a disorganized fashion and instances where materials were available and were not used." (Id.)

Casey was informed by "administrators who observed and/or evaluated Plaintiff" of several perceived deficiencies in Plaintiff's job performance during the 2003-04 school year: "lack of mastery of the subject area, poorly planned lessons, lack of organization, failure to report to school on time, failure to notify the head teacher and ...


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