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Smith v. Tuckahoe Union Free School Dist.

September 22, 2010

CARL G. SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TUCKAHOE UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT, AND MICHAEL YAZURLO, SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS, TUCKAHOE UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul G. Gardephe, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

In this action, Plaintiff Carl G. Smith seeks relief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000 et seq. ("Title VII"), for alleged race discrimination and retaliation by his former employer, Tuckahoe Union Free School District ("the District"), and his former supervisor, Superintendent of Schools Michael Yazurlo. Smith claims that his employment was terminated based on Yazurlo's recommendation that he be fired. Smith contends that Yazurlo's recommendation was based on (1) racial animus and (2) his desire to retaliate against Smith for complaining about Yazurlo's sexual harassment of and use of a racially charged term with an African-American employee. Following a five-day trial, the jury rendered a verdict in the Defendants' favor on both claims.

Pending before the Court is Smith's motion to set aside the verdict pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50, and for a new trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a). (Docket No. 43) For the reasons stated below, Smith's motion is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Smith filed the Complaint in this action on October 8, 2003, alleging race discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII and state law relating to his termination in 2001 from his position as Director of Finance.*fn1 (Docket No. 1)

On September 30, 2009, the Court granted summary judgment on Smith's state law claims because they were time-barred, but denied summary judgment as to the Title VII claims because there were "disputed issues of material fact regarding the reasons for Smith's termination and the events that led up to it." Smith v. Tuckahoe Union Free Sch. Dist., 03 Civ. 7951 (PGG), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91106, at *1-2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2009). Trial began on December 14, 2009, and the jury returned a verdict on December 21, 2009, in Defendants' favor on both claims.

II. EVIDENCE AT TRIAL

A. Smith's Hiring

In the summer of 2001, Yazurlo and Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Barbarann Tantillo conducted multiple rounds of interviews for the Director of Finance position and ultimately selected Smith, an African-American, and one other applicant for a final interview round with the Board of Education ("the Board"). Yazurlo and Tantillo made their selection from a pool of mainly white applicants. (Tr. 350:6-12; Tr. 866:1-9) After the final round interview, Yazurlo recommended to the Board that Smith be hired.*fn2 (Tr. 350:16-22; 486:5-11; 508:16-25; 870:9-13) The Board subsequently voted to hire Smith for a probationary three-year term as Director of Finance. (Tr. 353:16-354:10)

B. The Redding "Brown Sugar" Incident

At trial, the jury heard conflicting testimony about an incident in which Yazurlo used the term "brown sugar" with Justine Redding -- an African-American employee.

According to Smith, on November 21, 2001, he and Yazurlo were in conversation outside the District's middle school when Dr. Redding approached. As Redding approached, Yazurlo allegedly "turned towards her, grabbed her on the arm and forced her towards him and kissed her on the lips." (Tr. 104:23-25) Smith testified that Yazurlo said "give me some of that brown sugar" just before kissing Redding. (Tr. 105:1-3) According to Smith, once Redding had walked away he immediately demanded that Yazurlo apologize to both him and Redding. (Tr. 106:5-18) Yazurlo allegedly responded by stating, "who are you to question me." (Tr. 106:21-23) Smith claims that after the Thanksgiving holiday, he again demanded an apology, but that Yazurlo refused and "laughed it off." (Tr. 108:4-109:3)

Yazurlo admitted that he had used the term "brown sugar" with Redding, but otherwise contradicted Smith's testimony. According to Yazurlo, he encountered Redding just before Thanksgiving in a school hallway; he made the "brown sugar" comment as he touched cheeks with Redding to say goodbye and express his best wishes for the holiday. (Tr. 583:15-18) Yazurlo denied that Smith was present for that incident, and testified that Smith learned of the "brown sugar" remark from Yazurlo, who mentioned the remark in counseling Smith about a sexual harassment complaint that had been lodged against Smith.*fn3 Yazurlo testified that he never discussed the "brown sugar" comment with Smith on any other occasion. (Tr. 584:10-14)

Redding did not testify at trial, but portions of her deposition testimony were read to the jury. These excerpts indicated that Redding had been "very shocked and upset" by Yazurlo's kiss and "brown sugar" comment, which Smith had witnessed. (Tr. 313:13-316:24) In addition, Redding stated at her deposition that Yazurlo had attempted to apologize to her on multiple occasions after the incident. (Tr. 337:18-338:23) Redding further indicated that Yazurlo had ...


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