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Sassone v. Quartararo

February 18, 2009

JOANNE SASSONE, MELANIE PARTELOW NANNA, KRISTY NICKERSON, AND MARY BETH SANGALLI, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
VINCENT QUARTARARO, INDIVIDUALLY, ROBERT J. REIDY, JR., INDIVIDUALLY, CAROL DEALLEAUME, INDIVIDUALLY, AND MAHOPAC CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Joanne Sassone, Melanie Partelow Nanna, Kristy Nickerson, and Mary Beth Sangalli ("Plaintiffs"), who are employees of Defendant Mahopac Central School District (the "District"), brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"), alleging that the District and three of its administrators ("Defendants") violated Plaintiffs' rights under the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause in connection with actions taken by Defendants following Plaintiffs' reporting of alleged co-worker misconduct. Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).*fn1 For the reasons stated herein, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background

For the purpose of this Motion, the Court accepts as true all facts alleged by Plaintiff in his First Amended Complaint ("Amended Complaint"), filed September 27, 2007.

As of the date of filing of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs were employed by the District, each in the position of "Teacher's Aide." (Am. Compl. ("AC") ¶ 3.) Prior to April 2007, Plaintiffs worked with autistic children in the "prestigious 'Bridge Program'" at Mahopac Falls Elementary School. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 10.)

Defendants Robert J. Reidy, Jr. ("Reidy"), Vincent Quartararo ("Quartararo"), and Carol DeAlleaume ("DeAlleaume") (collectively, the "Individual Defendants") were employed by the District as Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, and Active Interim Principal, respectively, "at all times relevant to [Plaintiffs'] complaint." (Id. ¶¶ 4-6.)

In or about March 2007, Plaintiffs "expressed concerns to the Defendants regarding classroom conduct engaged in" by five of Plaintiffs' co-workers. (Id. ¶ 8.) Plaintiffs "related . . . their personal observations" of, inter alia, a teacher and two teacher's aides using "degrading nicknames for the autistic children," a teacher's aide "grabbing [another teacher's aide's] breasts in front of their students," a teacher's aide "slapping [a teacher's] buttocks and massaging her in front of their students," a speech therapist "exposing her breasts" and "exposing her nipples" to the students, and two teacher's aides "engaging in sex-related discussions in front of their students." (Id. ¶ 8(a)-(b), (d)-(f), (h).) Defendants subsequently "ordered [Plaintiffs] to reiterate their complaints to the [local] Police." (Id. ¶ 9.) Plaintiffs' reports to the police resulted in "a criminal investigation in the Spring of 2007," after which four of the five co-workers were "arrested and charged with various crimes." (Id.)

On April 6, 2007, Quartararo, allegedly on behalf of all Defendants, sent each Plaintiff a letter (the "April 6 Letter") stating as follows:

You are hereby placed on administrative reassignment to home, effective April 10, 2007, with full pay and benefits, pending the District's investigation into certain issues which have recently come to our attention in connection with your employment.

You are not allowed on school grounds or at school sponsored events until further notice. You are also not allowed to have any contact with students or their parents until further notice. (Id. ¶ 10 (internal quotation marks omitted).) Plaintiffs thereafter "did not communicate with any of their autistic students regarding their concerns about the maltreatment to which they were subjected; did not communicate with the parents/guardians of any of those students in order to apprise them of the despicable treatment accorded their children; and did not communicate with the media regarding the outrageous treatment accorded those students." (Id. ¶ 13.)

On May 29, 2007, Plaintiffs filed their initial Complaint in this action, alleging that they did not communicate with students, parents, or the media about the alleged misconduct because they "recogniz[ed] the implicit threat of disciplinary action and/or job termination should they violate [the April 6, 2007] order." (Compl. ¶ 11.) They alleged that their "banishment from the school and coerced silence, coupled with the arrests of their former co-workers, w[ere] intended by Defendants to give the false public impression that Plaintiffs had engaged in misconduct and/or criminal wrongdoing of the same or a similar nature to" that engaged in by their five co-workers. (Id. ¶ 12.) Plaintiffs alleged that "Defendants' conduct and retaliatory conduct" violated their First Amendment rights, and caused them to suffer various injuries, including "deprivation of their right to express as citizens their opinions on matters of grave public concern." (Id. ¶¶ 13, 15.)

On or about June 19, 2007, Defendants' counsel "notified Plaintiffs' union representative that . . . Nanna, Nickerson, and S[a]ngal[l]i would not be permitted to work for the District during the summer," although they had done so in previous years, for additional compensation. (AC ¶ 15.) "On or about August 27, 2007, Defendants in writing directed each of the Plaintiffs to report two days thereafter to the . . . school library . . . [in order] to discuss their 'employment' with the District." (Id. ¶ 16.) On August 29, 2007, each Plaintiff was interviewed separately, and each was "asked a series of 'yes' [or] 'no' questions regarding their original report" as to the misconduct of their five co-workers. (Id. ¶ 17.) Subsequently, Defendants informed Plaintiffs of their work assignments for the 2007-08 school year. (Id. ¶ 18.) Each Plaintiff was "assigned to a new work location," "directed to assume degrading and grossly diminished job responsibilities," and excluded from the "Bridge Program." (Id.)

Plaintiffs filed their Amended Complaint on September 27, 2007, alleging that Defendants imposed on Plaintiffs the conditions stated in the April 6 Letter "[o]ut of concern that Plaintiffs would . . . communicate their observations to the parents of their autistic students and/or the media" (id. ¶ 10), that Defendants' representation in the letter of a current or future "District investigation . . . with respect to Plaintiff's employment" was "false" and "intended to intimidate Plaintiffs" and prevent them from "publicly . . . express[ing] their concerns about the systemic criminal wrong doing and the injuries/humiliation suffered by the autistic children" (id. ¶ 11), that the conditions stated in the April 6 Letter and "the threat . . . [of] investigation by the District and potential[] . . . job termination" caused Plaintiffs to refrain from communicating with their students, their students' parents, or the media (id. ¶ 13), and that Defendants excluded Nanna, Nickerson, and Sangalli from working for the District over the summer and gave all Plaintiffs inferior and "stigmatiz[ing]" work assignments for the 2007-08 school year in retaliation for Plaintiffs' statements about their co-workers' "criminal wrong doing" and for "their filing of this action" (id. ¶¶ 15, 18). Plaintiffs allege that their "identically situated co-workers, who had actual knowledge of the . . . criminal wrong doing but did not report it, were not subjected" to the actions taken by Defendants with respect to Plaintiffs. (Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiffs further allege that they suffered various injuries "[a]s a proximate result of Defendants' intentional retaliatory conduct." (Id. ¶ 19.)

Plaintiffs assert two claims against Defendants pursuant to Section 1983. First, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' "conduct and retaliatory conduct" violated Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights. (Id. ¶ 21.) Second, Plaintiffs claim that "Defendants intentionally subjected Plaintiffs" to "disparate treatment" as compared to "Plaintiffs' identically situated co-workers" in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. ¶ 23.)

Plaintiffs seek compensatory damages against all Defendants, punitive damages against the Individual Defendants, and an injunction against Defendants' imposition of the conditions stated in the April 6, 2007 Letter. (Id. ¶ 23(a)-(c).)

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

"On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a complaint, the court must accept a plaintiff's factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in [the plaintiff's] favor." Gonzalez v. Caballero, 572 F. Supp. 2d 463, 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2008); see also Ruotolo v. City of New York, 514 F.3d 184, 188 (2d Cir. 2008) ("We review de novo a district court's dismissal of a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), accepting all factual allegations in the complaint and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor." (internal quotation marks omitted)). "In adjudicating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a district court must confine its consideration to facts stated on the face of the complaint, in documents appended to the complaint or incorporated in the complaint by reference, and to matters of which judicial notice may be taken." Leonard F. v. Isr. Disc. Bank of N.Y.,199 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Supreme Court has held that "[w]hile a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007) (internal citations omitted) (second alteration in Twombly). In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, see id. at 1964-69, the Supreme Court abandoned reliance on the oft-cited line from Conley v. Gibson,355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." As the Court explained in Twombly, a literal application of Conley's "no set of facts" rationale is improper because "a wholly conclusory statement of claim would survive a motion to dismiss whenever the pleadings left open the possibility that a plaintiff might later establish some 'set of [undisclosed] facts' to support recovery." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1968 (alteration in Twombly). Instead, the Court emphasized that "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," id. at 1965, and that "once a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint," id. at 1969. Plaintiffs must allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 1974. If Plaintiffs "have not nudged their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, their complaint must be dismissed." Id.; see also Iqbal ...


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