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Guerra v. Jones

March 16, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Neal P. McCurn, Senior United States District Judge


Plaintiff Domingo P. Guerra ("Guerra") brings this job discrimination action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000 et seq. ("Title VII"); and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq. Named defendants are Stephen C. Jones, Syracuse City School District ("SCSD") Superintendent for the 2004-2005 School Year; Daniel Lowengard, SCSD Superintendent; Ann Sanzone ("Sanzone"), Assistant Director of Personnel; Joan O'Shea ("O'Shea"), Principal; Colleen Brennan ("Brennan"), Vice Principal; Nancy Zarach ("Zarach"), SCSD Math Coordinator; Barbara Warren ("Warren"), Roberts School In School Suspension Supervisor; SCSD Board members Ned Deuel, Laurie Menkin, Calvin Corridors, Cynthia Kirby, Dorothy Matthews, Nancy McCarty, and Kim Rohadfax-Ceaser; and John Does.

Currently before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 87) on the Title VII and ADEA claims, as well as an additional six motions submitted by the plaintiff. Eight more motions largely pertaining to discovery matters were dismissed on February 16, 2010 by Magistrate Judge George Lowe .*fn1 Doc. No. 103. For the reasons set forth below, the defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. The plaintiff's pending motions are denied as moot.

I. Facts and Procedural History

The following facts relevant to the summary judgment motion before the court are taken from the record, including from plaintiff Guerra's statement of material facts and from exhibits before the court and will be construed in favor of the plaintiff. Guerra had been a teacher, administrator, teacher trainer and educational researcher for 25 years prior to accepting an eighth grade science teaching position at Roberts School for the 2004-2005 school year. Doc. No. 97-1 at p. 3.*fn2 The Roberts School student demographic consisted of 54% minority students and 43% non-minority*fn3 students. The Roberts teaching staff consisted of fifty non-minority teachers and two minority teachers, Guerra and an African-American female. During the 2004-2005 school year, O'Shea was the Roberts School principal and Brennan was the vice-principal. Warren was a school district teaching assistant. Doc. No. 87-4.

On November 22, 2004, O'Shea evaluated Guerra on his first three months of teaching at Robert School, and at a conference held on December 3, 2004, Guerra was given a positive performance review. Doc. No. 97-1 at p. 5. From that date until the date of the alleged incident on April 15, 2005 that led to his dismissal, Guerra asserts that he continued teaching and preparing his students for a New York State Science Lab test held on January 19 and 20, a school science fair on February 17, and a Syracuse University Science Fair on March 15, 2005. Id. at 6-7.

Guerra met with and maintained contact with the school counselor regarding difficult students in his class. The school counselor assisted Guerra with interventions with the students and their parents. Id. Guerra kept detailed records of his attempts to support difficult students and records of their disruptive behavior, which eventually led to meetings with the parent. At one such meeting, Vice Principal Brennan allegedly complimented Guerra for keeping a detailed record of the incidents. At a subsequent meeting with a different student, Principal O'Shea allegedly complimented Guerra on his record keeping of the disruptive incidents. Id. at 8. Guerra had also written referrals and reported to O'Shea regarding inappropriate sexual behaviors by some students. Id. at 9. Guerra alleges that at weekly meetings held to discuss school issues, the eighth grade staff was encouraged to write up disruptive students to create a paper trail to take to a district disciplinary hearing, in order to remove disruptive students from Roberts School. At another meeting, Principal O'Shea and Vice Principal Brennan told the eighth grade teachers that In School Supension Supervisor Warren had been instructed to monitor the classrooms. Id. at 10.

Guerra also contends that there was racial tension at Roberts School, citing intervention by the Onondaga County/Syracuse Commission on Human Rights ("CHR") and a mediator chosen by the Parent Teacher Organization. Despite a request by CHR to Principal O'Shea to organize her staff into groups based on race, with said groups participating in an assessment workshop, Guerra alleges that he, the only male Hispanic teacher, was not allowed to participate. Id. at 12.

Defendants allege that on April 15, 2005, a sexual touching incident ("the incident") occurred between a male and a female student in Guerra's classroom during science class. The incident was reported to O'Shea and Brennan by two students not involved in the incident, both of whom had been previously written up by Guerra for threatening behavior. Id. at 14. On April 29, Warren interviewed the two students who were involved in the alleged incident and the two students who reported it, one of whom was not in Guerra's classroom at the time of the incident. Subsequent to the interview, Warren asked the students to write statements. Id. at 14-15. The student who was allegedly not in the classroom at the time of the incident submitted a written statement with a detailed diagram of the class layout, indicating how the incident occurred, where Guerra was at the time, where the students were sitting, how the desks were arranged, and so forth. Id. at 15. On May 3, Guerra was called to a meeting with O'Shea, and was given the statements written by the two students involved in the incident. One such statement asserted that the incident had not occurred. Id. at 17.

On May 6, 2005, Warren wrote letters graphically describing the incident to the parents of the two students involved, giving those letters to O'Shea to be mailed. Id. at 16. On May 6, Guerra wrote his response to the incident, asserting that April 15, 2005 was a typical teaching day and nothing out of the ordinary had happened. On May 17, 2005, O'Shea wrote a memo to the SCSD describing the alleged incident and the steps she had taken to address it. On that same day, Zarach, the District Math and Science Coordinator, entered Guerra's classroom to conduct an unannounced teacher evaluation. The evaluation was highly critical of Guerra's performance, suggesting he could use training in certain areas.*fn4 On May 27, 2005, Guerra was terminated from his teaching position. Id. at 18. Guerra was called to a meeting at the district office. He arrived with two representatives from the State Teachers' Association ("STA"), and the meeting convened with Assistant Director of Personnel Sanzone and Principal O'Shea in attendance. Sanzone informed Guerra that based on New York Education Law Section 3031, a first year probationary teacher could be removed for no cause, Guerra was no longer permitted to be on school grounds or district grounds, and he was to remove all of his belongings from the classroom on June 8, 2005 between the hours of 5 and 7 p.m. Guerra was to be paid through July 27, 2005. Id. at 20-22.

On the advice of the STA, Guerra sent a letter to Superintendent Jones on June 3, 2005, asking for reconsideration of his termination. On June 9, 2005, Guerra received a letter via certified mail from Jones outlining the reasons for Guerra's termination. The reasons stated were, "1. Failure to establish and maintain a safe and positive learning environment; 2. Failure to take steps to ensure a safe and secure learning environment; and 3. Failure to respond effectively to situations that disrupt the learning environment." The letter did not mention the sexual touching incident. Id. at 23-24.

On June 13, 2005, Guerra met with Jones to discuss the termination. By letter dated June 22, 2005, Jones upheld the termination. Id. at 24. Based on a recommendation by the STA that resignation would afford "better chances for subsequent jobs," Guerra tendered his resignation on July 8, 2005. Id. at 25. The SCSB accepted Guerra's resignation on July 13, 2005. Id. at 27.

On September 12, 2005, Guerra filed a complaint (SDHR Case No. 10107608) with the New York State Division of Human Rights ("DHR"), alleging that his employment with the school district had been terminated because of his race and color. Doc. No. 87-4 at p. 4. The DHR later determined that Guerra's complaint also encompassed a claim of age discrimination. Guerra's DHR race, color and age discrimination complaint was cross-filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") as EEOC Charge No. 16G-25-04926. Id. On September 21, 2006, the DHR dismissed Guerra's discrimination complaint, finding that he was hired and terminated by the same individual, and that he was terminated based on reports that students engaged in sexual contact in his classroom without intervention or observation by him. The DHR found that there was no evidence Guerra's termination was related to his race, color or age. Id. at pp. 4-5.

On April 13, 2007, Guerra filed a complaint (SDHR Case No. 10117250) with the DHR alleging he had been retaliated against by the school district for filing his discrimination claim. Guerra's DHR retaliation complaint was cross-filed with the EEOC as EEOC Charge No. 16G-2007-02591. On August 17, 2007, the DHR issued a no probable cause determination, dismissing the retaliation complaint. On October 4, 2007, the EEOC issued a dismissal and notice of rights letter ("right to sue") letter in Guerra's retaliation case, and on October 11, 2007, the EEOC issued a dismissal and right to sue letter in his discrimination case. Guerra filed his civil action before this court on January 9, 2008, pursuant to Title VII and the ADEA.

II. Discussion

As a threshold matter, the court notes that Guerra is representing himself in this matter. The court is therefore required to consider Guerra's pro se papers "liberally[,] and interpret them to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Cold Stone Creamery, Inc. v. Gorman, 2010 WL 199993 at * 3 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Brownell v. Krom, 446 F.3d 305, 310 (2d Cir. 2006).

A. Summary Judgment Standard

A motion for summary judgment shall be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). See also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552 (1986); Security Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 82 (2d Cir. 2004). For purposes of this rule, material facts are defined as those which might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Anderson V. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505 (1986).

"[I]n assessing the record to determine whether there is a genuine issue as to a material fact, the court is required to resolve all ambiguities and draw all permissible factual inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought[.]" See Security Ins., 391 F.3d at 83, citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. "Only when reasonable minds could not differ as to the import of the evidence is summary judgment proper." Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991), citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250-51.

While the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact falls upon the moving party, once that burden is met, the non-moving party must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial," see Koch v. Town of Brattleboro, Vermont, 287 F.3d 162, 165 (2d Cir. 2002), citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c), by a showing sufficient to establish the existence of every element essential to the party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, see Peck v. Public Serv. Mut. Ins. Co., 326 F.3d 330, 337 (2d Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 1005 (2003).

"[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson, supra, at 247-48. At the summary judgment stage of any litigation, "the trial court's task is carefully limited to discerning whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined ... to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue resolution." Gallo v. Prudential Residential Serv. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994). "When no rational jury could find in favor of the nonmoving party because the evidence to support its case is so slight, there is no genuine issue of material fact and a grant of summary judgment is proper." Id.

Courts are "particularly cautious about granting summary judgment to an employer in a discrimination case when the employer's intent is in question." Schwapp v. Town of Avon, 118 F.3d 106, 110 (2d Cir. 1997). "Because direct evidence of an employer's discriminatory intent will rarely be found, affidavits and depositions must be carefully scrutinized for circumstantial proof which, if believed, would show discrimination." ...

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