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Cozzi v. Great Neck Union Free School Dist.

August 21, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: VITALIANO, D.J.


Plaintiff Angela Cozzi brings this action against defendants Randolph Ross, Lissa Baily, Christine Montlor, William Shine (collectively, the "individual defendants") and Great Neck Union Free School District ("GNUFSD" or the "school district") under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. ("ADA"), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. ("ADEA"), and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq. ("NYSHRL"). Cozzi, who at all times relevant to this action, was a tenured foreign language teacher employed by GNUFSD, alleges that defendants (1) retaliated against her for an editorial she authored in a student newspaper, in violation of the First Amendment; (2) removed her from her teaching position without due process of law; (3) discriminated against her on the basis of an alleged disability, in violation of the ADA; and (4) discriminated against her on the basis of her age, in violation of the ADEA. Defendants move, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, for summary judgment on all of these claims, and Cozzi opposes. For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion is granted.


Plaintiff Angela Cozzi was born in May 1950. In 1985, she commenced employment with GNUFSD as a foreign language teacher in the Languages Other Than English ("LOTE") Department of South Great Neck High School ("South Great Neck"). Cozzi received tenure in 1989 and it appears was bound, at all times relevant to this action, by the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") between the GNUFSD Board of Education (the "school board") and the Great Neck teachers association. Cozzi worked for many years in the LOTE Department, teaching French and Italian, until the school board suspended her, as a result of disciplinary charges, on June 23, 2004. The charges and suspension prompt this lawsuit. Denying any violation of Constitution or law, defendants maintain that the school administration charged Cozzi in response to a longstanding, uncorrected pattern of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior and incompetence in the years leading up to the suspension.

A. Cozzi's Relevant Work Performance History and First Amendment Allegations

The evidentiary record proffered by defendants regarding Cozzi's performance at South Great Neck is substantial, and begins shortly following the 1997-1998 academic year. On June 18, 1998, defendant Randolph Ross, South Great Neck's principal, wrote a letter to Cozzi expressing concern regarding the final exam for plaintiff's French 1 class. Principal Ross voiced two criticisms. First, he disapproved of the fact that Cozzi had submitted the exam to the LOTE Department Head, defendant Lissa Baily, more than three weeks after the deadline set by the department. Second, he noted that Cozzi apparently had not constructed the exam herself, but instead had submitted a test prepared by her Advanced Placement ("AP") students -- a fact that apparently became known to the students in French 1, breaching the security of the exam. As a result, Baily and other members of the LOTE Department were required to develop an alternate exam, which was ultimately administered. Cozzi provides a substantially different perspective. According to plaintiff's declaration, in 1998 she conducted a written exercise with her AP students which called on them to draft sample question and answer sets for French 1 students. However, plaintiff insists that, she, and she alone, drafted the questions and answer set for the French 1 exam that she submitted to Baily.

Defendants document no concerns regarding Cozzi's performance during the 1998-1999 academic year. In the following school year, however, matters changed. In December 1999, in response to numerous complaints from parents and students about plaintiff's teaching, Principal Ross sat in on Cozzi's French 11 class to observe her performance. In a December 13 report recounting his observations and evaluating plaintiff's work, Ross found that the complaints he had received were meritorious. Ross detailed a number of criticisms of Cozzi's teaching and concluded that the lesson he observed was "unsatisfactory" and that "improvement [was] necessary." (Defs.' Ex. I at 2.) Cozzi, in her declaration, takes exception to Principal Ross's conclusions and asserts that his contemporaneous report did not reflect the events that transpired in her class that day. She further asserts that she, as the instructor, knew best how to teach her students and was acting in her best judgment to do so.

Early the next month, on January 9, 2000, GNUFSD's assistant superintendent, Arlette Sanders, addressed a memorandum to Principal Ross notifying him that she had received a complaint letter from a parent of a student in plaintiff's French 11 class. Sanders informed Ross that the parent had expressed several concerns about Cozzi and noted that one of the problems identified -- waning student motivation and diminished interest in French -- was of "paramount gravity" because the LOTE department already had "expressed concern that the French program [was] shrinking." (Defs.' Ex. K at 1.) Cozzi disputes the parent's opinion of the class's morale and avers, in sum and substance, that the student's perspective was not representative because she was often absent from or unprepared for class.

On May 8, 2000, Principal Ross made an unannounced visit to Cozzi's French 10 class in response to more parent complaints. In an accompanying report, Ross noted that his observation of the class validated some of the parents' concerns and expressed his own fear that "some of the problems identified earlier in the year in [plaintiff's] French 11 class have cropped up again." (Defs.' Ex. L at 2.) Ross stated that he provided Cozzi with instruction, enumerated in the report, on how to remediate these ongoing problems.

Nevertheless, in late May and early June 2000, Principal Ross sent Cozzi two letters detailing additional complaints from at least one parent and student. In the June letter, Ross "[o]nce again" told plaintiff that she had failed to create a student friendly environment in her French 10 course and instructed her that "[t]his needs to change." (Defs.' Ex. N at 1.) Ross also noted that he had ordered Cozzi to comply with GNUFSD policy about returning student assignments and directed her to turn in her final exams, which were again overdue, to her department chief. For her part, Cozzi states that she addressed the parents' concerns following Ross's May 8, 2000 observation and evaluation and avers that, in any event, the complaints were misplaced and a consequence of poor student performance, not her own.

On June 5, 2000, Ross and Baily completed a report evaluating Cozzi's teaching performance in the 1999-2000 academic year. The report praised plaintiff as a "masterful" speaker of both French and Italian and noted her "firm[]" commitment to LOTE teaching. (Defs.' Ex. O at 1.) On the negative side, the evaluation stated that there had been "a number" of parent and student complaints about Cozzi's teaching throughout the year and that various concerns about her "relationships with students, organizational skills and appropriate exam practices . . . persisted." (Id.) Cozzi again counters that parent and student concerns were misplaced and that she adhered to district policy.

As the 2001-2002 school year drew to a close, on June 7, 2002, Baily transmitted a memorandum to Cozzi, with a copy to Principal Ross, regarding plaintiff's failure, again, to meet the deadline for submitting final exams. Baily informed plaintiff that her plan to submit the exams approximately three weeks late, on the last day of classes, was "unacceptable." (Defs.' Ex. R at 1.) Baily reminded plaintiff that she (Baily) still needed to review and package the tests before they could be administered, and that these tasks had to be put on hold while Cozzi delayed.

Less than two weeks later, Principal Ross held a meeting with Baily, Cozzi, and a union representative to discuss problems stemming from plaintiff's final exams. In a June 19, 2002 letter to Cozzi documenting the meeting, Ross noted plaintiff's repeated failure to meet the exam submission deadline and indicated that the administration had received "a number" of complaints from parents and students regarding her tardiness in informing students of the date and scope of the exam. (Defs.' Ex. T at 1.) Ross described plaintiff's conduct as "not acceptable," instructed her that it must improve, and noted that he was referring the matter to GNUFSD's assistant superintendent, Mary Bonner, for review and possible further action. (Id.)

Upon review of the matter, Assistant Superintendent Bonner issued a letter to Cozzi on July 3, 2002. Bonner noted that the number of students in Cozzi's courses had been comparatively light, but that she still failed to meet the exam submission deadline, the third time she had done so in recent years. Bonner bluntly informed Cozzi that "such non-compliance with school rules must be corrected. Please consider this note to represent our extreme concern regarding your competence and performance." (Defs.' Ex. U at 1.)

Plaintiff does not seriously dispute that she submitted her final exam several weeks past the May 2002 deadline, or that she was counseled by her administrators for that conduct. Rather, she asserts that she explained to Baily the reasons for the delay. Specifically, Cozzi states that while development of a final exam in the LOTE Department ordinarily is a collaborative effort among several teachers, in the spring of 2002, she had to work alone to draft her exam. Cozzi says she was the only teacher in the department who was required to develop the test alone, despite having what she describes as an "exceptionally high student enrollment compared to previous years." (Cozzi Decl. ¶ 12.) Cozzi states that she assured Bonner that she would meet the submission deadlines in the future, and avers that she did so the following academic year, 2002-2003.

On October 22, 2002, one of Cozzi's students appeared ill, and perhaps under the influence of drugs, during class. Cozzi spoke to the student about his condition during class and afterwards and learned that he had previously used drugs. Plaintiff did not refer the student to a health professional and instead eventually sent the him on his way. When, a short time later, Cozzi encountered the student again in the school's parking lot and he indicated that he had missed a ride from his parent, she drove him home. Plaintiff reported the incident to an assistant principal and the nurse the next day.

On October 25, 2002, Principal Ross held a meeting with Cozzi, Assistant Principal Maureen Newman, and plaintiff's union representative, regarding the episode with the ill student and a second, separate matter involving a confrontation between plaintiff and a student and parent. As to the latter issue, Ross told Cozzi that she could have avoided the confrontation and noted that "[w]e have spoken in the past about improving your relationships with parents and students. This incident indicates that you are still not meeting that goal." (Defs.' Ex. X at 1.) With regard to the ill student, Ross stated that Cozzi had failed to follow the school's drug policy as outlined in the teacher's handbook. Ross concluded that "[i]n each case, serious mistakes in judgment were made" and observed that "[e]xamples of poor judgment and relationships with students have continued this year despite counsel and correspondence from your Department Head, Principal, Assistant Superintendent and Superintendent." (Id. at 2.) Ross referred the matter to the assistant superintendent for further review.

As to these events, Cozzi claims that she did not believe that the ill student was under the influence of drugs; rather, she had learned only that he had previously used drugs, but was now clean. Cozzi asserts that she drove the student home only after obtaining permission to do so from his parent. With respect to the second incident, the confrontation with the student and parent, Cozzi insists that she acted appropriately and in a manner that reasonably should not have provoked a conflict.

On March 7, 2003, Principal Ross held yet another meeting with Cozzi -- and including Baily, an assistant principal, and a union representative -- concerning plaintiff's interactions with and conduct towards parents and students. The following day, Ross visited several of plaintiff's French classes to observe her performance. In a letter to Cozzi dated March 8, 2003, Ross stated: "[b]ased on my previous conversations and correspondences with you, my observation of your classes and a review of supervisory reports from previous years, it is my judgment that your relationships with parents and students, your preparation of exams and your organizational skills have not improved. This lack of progress is unsatisfactory and detrimental to your students and the French program at South [Great Neck]." (Defs.' Ex. Z at 3.) Cozzi admits receiving this criticism but disputes much of its substance.

Less than one month later, on April 1, 2003, Department Head Baily sent correspondence to Ross conveying her observations and conclusions regarding plaintiff's testing procedures. Baily observed that it was a goal of the LOTE Department to provide "clarity in instructions as well as a systemic presentation of our expectations" to students when drafting exams. (Defs.' Ex. AA at 1.) However, according to Baily, Cozzi had fallen short of this goal, by designing tests that lacked instructions and that did not make clear her (Cozzi's) expectations for her students. Baily informed Ross that she could not "condone this type of testing." (Id.) Cozzi disputes this criticism and says that her student assessments always were consistent with school policy.

On May 13, 2003, Principal Ross, Cozzi, Assistant Superintendent Bonner, and others met to discuss the administration's ongoing concerns about plaintiff's teaching methods and her interactions with students and parents. In a memorandum documenting the meeting, dated May 20, 2003, Assistant Superintendent Bonner noted that:

[w]e agreed that in spite of the evaluation you received from Mr. Ross in June 2002 [(Defs.' Ex. T)], and the letter I sent you in July of 2002 outlining concerns for the school year 2001-2002 [(Defs.' Ex. U)], interactions with parents and students did not improve. On May 13th, I informed you that if during the 2003-2004 school year these concerns continue the district will consider bringing this matter to a 3020A hearing [to determine whether there is just cause for plaintiff's dismissal]. (Defs.' Ex. BB at 1.) Here, as elsewhere, Cozzi, acknowledges that the school administration voiced these concerns but disputes the substance of the criticism.

One month later, on June 18, 2003, Baily again wrote to plaintiff, this time regarding her apparent failure to review for accuracy documents from South Great Neck's guidance department identifying which French courses students were to be placed in the upcoming academic year. Baily noted that Cozzi's failure to "execute this simple but critical task caused a spillover of problems in scheduling and staffing" that required "considerable effort and time" on the part of the school's administration to correct. (Defs.' Ex. CC at 1.) Baily stated that it appeared that plaintiff did not know the proper sequence of courses in the French program, i.e., which courses were prerequisites for others, and described her errors as a failure to fulfill "basic professional responsibilities." (Id.)

Criticism of Cozzi intensified in the second half of the 2003-2004 academic year. On February 6, 2004, Baily authored a memorandum to Principal Ross notifying him that Cozzi apparently had failed to keep abreast of recent changes in the requirements for the AP French exam. Plaintiff's AP students became concerned, noted Baily, when a substitute teacher explained the change that Cozzi had neglected to cover. Several days later, on February 9, Principal Ross completed a observation report detailing his assessment of plaintiff's instruction of the AP class. Ross was critical, noting, in sum, that the observed lesson was unsatisfactory and needed to improve.

As to the February 6 memorandum, Cozzi insists that she did keep abreast of the AP exam design and requirements. As to Ross's February 9 report, plaintiff avers that the problems the principal purported to observe were, in fact, caused by her alleged disability and by the fact that she taught the lesson in a social studies -- rather than a LOTE -- classroom.

On March 2, 2004, Ross again visited Cozzi's AP French class. In a letter to plaintiff dated March 5, Ross starkly observed that "the situation in this class has deteriorated to the point that [it] is not being prepared properly for the Advanced Placement exam. . . . My recent observations indicate that this class is disorganized and not meeting the needs of the students." (Defs.' Ex. FF at 1.) As a result of these ongoing problems, Ross informed Cozzi that he was relieving her of her duties as the AP French instructor, effective the following work day, March 8, 2004. Cozzi, for her part, admits to having been relieved of her duties but asserts that Principal Ross was motivated to do so by discriminatory animus.*fn1

On May 4, 2004, Ross sent Cozzi a letter documenting still another meeting between them regarding additional complaints about plaintiff's teaching performance. Ross noted several areas in which Cozzi had received criticism in the past but continued to perform poorly and concluded that "[i]t is my judgment that you are not being responsive to recommendations to help you improve your classroom performance and relationships with children and parents. Your performance this year continues to be problematic and unsatisfactory." (Defs.' Ex. II at 2.) Cozzi disputes the content of this criticism.

Several days earlier, on April 28, 2004, South Great Neck's student newspaper, The Southerner, had published a letter to the editor authored by ...

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