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Rodriguez v. Clinton

February 4, 2009

EDGAR RODRIGUEZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BARBARA CLINTON, ELIZABETH DAVIES, AND NEW PALTZ CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANTS.



SCULLIN, Senior Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff's complaint asserts a First Amendment retaliation claim against each Defendant based upon the New Paltz High School Parent-Teacher Student Association's ("PTSA") Executive Board's removal of him from a school committee, the filing of a report with Child Protective Services ("CPS") for educational neglect, and the threatened filing of a PINS*fn1 petition about his child in retaliation for his protected speech concerning school district issues. Plaintiff also asserts a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim against each Defendant alleging that the same conductwas motivated by discriminatory animus due to his race and/or national origin.Currently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Edgar Rodriguez is an American citizen born in New York to Puerto Rican parents. Plaintiff's wife, Margaret Veve, was employed by Defendant New Paltz Central School District ("District") as Director of Pupil Personnel Services from 1993 through 1998 and was also a member of the District's Board of Education from May 2004 through June 2005. Plaintiff is also actively involved with Defendant District.*fn2 One of Plaintiff's children, A.R., was enrolled in and attended school in the Defendant District until September 8, 2004.

Defendant Barbara Clinton is the principal of the New Paltz High School. Defendant Elizabeth Davies is a Guidance Counselor at the New Paltz High School and also the Chair of the Child Study Team.*fn3

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants move for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. As to Plaintiff's First Amendment claims based on the PTSA's removal, Defendants move for summary judgment on the following grounds: that the PTSA's removal lacked state action; failure to state a claim; lack of personal liability for the individual Defendants; lack of municipal liability of Defendant District; and statutory and qualified immunity. As to Plaintiff's First Amendment claims based on the filing of the CPS report, Defendants move for summary judgment on the following grounds: failure to state a claim; lack of personal liability for the individual Defendants; lack of municipal liability of Defendant District; and statutory and qualified immunity. As to Plaintiff's First Amendment claims based on the threat to file a PINS petition, Defendants move for summary judgment on the following grounds: failure to state a claim; lack of personal liability for the individual Defendants; lack of municipal liability of Defendant District; and statutory and qualified immunity. As to Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim, Defendants move for summary judgment on the following grounds: the PTSA's removal lacked state action; failure to state a claim; lack of personal liability for the individual Defendants; lack of municipal liability of Defendant District; and statutory and qualified immunity.

A. Plaintiff's First Amendment Retaliation Claim Based Upon PTSA Removal

Plaintiff alleges that the PTSA Executive Board, acting jointly with Defendant Clinton, retaliated and discriminated against him by removing him from his position on the HSC.

Plaintiff contends that Defendant Clinton, as principal of the high school, and PTSA President Lisa Berger acted in concert to create sufficient nexus to find state action for the PTSA Executive Board's action. In support of that contention, Plaintiff points to the long-standing relationship between Defendant Clinton and Ms. Berger, the number of times they met together, and Defendant Clinton's encouragement of Ms. Berger to take on the PTSA President position.

During November and December of 2004, Plaintiff and Ms. Berger had a disagreement about whether the PTSA had authorized Plaintiff to look into the school's eligibility policy.*fn4 On December 15, 2004, the PTSA Executive Board convened a meeting to which Plaintiff was invited but did not attend. See Defendants' Statement of Material Facts ("Defendants' Facts") at ¶¶ 69-70. The PTSA Executive Board voted to relieve Plaintiff of his duties as the HSC representative. See id. at ¶ 76.

"It is axiomatic that the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and § 1983, apply only to state actors." Leeds v. Meltz, 85 F.3d 51, 54 (2d Cir. 1996).Parent-Teacher organizations such as the PTSA are private actors.*fn5 See, e.g., Holy Spirit Assoc. for Unification of World Christianity v. N.Y. State Congress of Parents & Teachers, Inc., 95 Misc. 2d 548, 551 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1978). However, a private actor may be considered a state actor where the conduct "is 'fairly attributable to the state.'" Leeds, 85 F.3d at 54 (quoting Rendell-Baker [v. Kohn,] 457 U.S. [830,] 838, 102 S.Ct. at 2769 [(1982)]). For private action to be fairly attributable to the state, the state must exert coercive power or provide significant encouragement. See id.The plaintiff must demonstrate a sufficiently "'"close nexus between the State and the challenged action,"'" which can be found where the State exercises coercive power, there is entwined management and control, the State offers significant overt or covert encouragement, the private entity is a willful participant in joint activity, the private entity is controlled by an agency of the state, the private entity has been delegated a public function, or the private entity is entwined with governmental policies.See Tancredi v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 316 F.3d 308, 312-13 (2d Cir. 2003) (quotation and other citation omitted). State approval or acquiescence is not state action where the private entity initiates the conduct, and the State has not ordered the conduct.See id. at 313 (quotation omitted).

Even taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the evidence shows, at most, that Ms. Berger was upset with Plaintiff following the December 8, 2004 Board of Education meeting, and the preceding events, where she believed Plaintiff was overstepping his authority. Although Plaintiff alleges Ms. Berger discussed removing Plaintiff from the HSC with Defendant Clinton and informed Defendant Clinton of the PTSA Executive Board's action, hecannot show more than Defendant Clinton's approval and acquiescence in the PTSA Executive Board's action.

Plaintiff has not produced any evidence that Defendant Clinton ordered the removal or of joint action or coercion. In fact, it appears that Defendant Clinton worked to resolve the conflict between Plaintiff and the PTSA Executive Board.*fn6

Based upon this evidence, the Court finds that the PTSA Executive Board's action was not a state action and, therefore, is not actionable as retaliatory conduct under the First Amendment or discriminatory conduct under the Fourteenth Amendment. Accordingly, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment to the extent that Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim and Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim are based on the PTSA Executive Board's action.

B. Plaintiff's First Amendment Retaliation Claim Based on the CPS Report

Plaintiff asserts a First Amendment retaliation claim based on Defendant District making a report to CPS that his son, A.R., was educationally neglected. Where there is adverse action*fn7 against a plaintiff based on ...


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