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Joseph F. Bennett v. Sheelah Lucier; Virginia Mcquade; Randy Ehrenberg; the Board of

December 9, 2010




I. Introduction

Plaintiff Joseph F. Bennett commenced this action against defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that he was terminated from his position as teacher aide and lacrosse coach in retaliation for his constitutionally protected activities as a CSEA Union member. (See 2d Am. Compl., Dkt. No. 77.) Pending is defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 87.) For the reasons that follow, the motion is denied.

II. Background

In 1995, defendant North Colonie Central School District hired plaintiff Joseph F. Bennett as varsity lacrosse coach. (See Defs. SMF ¶¶ 13-14, Dkt. No. 88:12.) In 2002, while still acting as coach, Bennett was hired by the District as a one-on-one teacher aide for S.B., a severely disabled student. (See id. at ¶¶ 21-23.) Bennett's duties as S.B.'s aide included changing S.B. twice per day, feeding him, working with him with music, taking him to physical therapy, reading to him, taking him in and out of his wheelchair, and accompanying him to classes. (Id. at ¶ 24.)

In November 2005, Bennett became President of the Civil Service Employees' Association (CSEA) Teacher Aide Unit. (Id. at ¶ 49.) In his role as Unit President, Bennett was responsible for participating in union contract negotiations, and for representing teacher aides in the District in disciplinary meetings and discussions with supervisors. (Id. at ¶ 50.)

On November 30, 2006, teacher aide Peter Vottis met with defendant Sheelah Lucier, Director of Pupil Services for the District and Bennett's direct supervisor, and defendant Virginia McQuade, Assistant Director of Pupil Services for the School District, to discuss allegations that he had physically and verbally mistreated his one-on-one student, A.W. (See id. at ¶¶ 105, 111.) At the meeting, McQuade and Lucier denied Vottis's request to be represented by Bennett and informed Vottis that he was being placed on administrative leave. (See id. at ¶¶ 11-12.)

Following the meeting with Vottis, Lucier met with Bennett regarding the matter. (See id. at ¶ 116.) During that meeting, Lucier told Bennett that Vottis was being placed on administrative leave, that there were concerns for A.W.'s safety, and, according to Bennett, that A.W.'s mother requested that Vottis be removed as A.W.'s aide. (See id. at ¶ 117; Pl. Resp. to SMF ¶ 117, Dkt. No. 89:2.) Following the meeting, Bennett, in his capacity as Union President, sent a letter to Lucier protesting the treatment of Vottis and contesting the charges against him. (See Defs. SMF at ¶ 120, Dkt. No. 88:12; Dec. 1, 2006 Letter, Dkt. No. 87:30.) In the letter, Bennett protested, among other things, the denial of Vottis's request for union representation at the meeting. (See Dec. 1, 2006 Letter, Dkt. No. 87:30.)

On December 4, a disciplinary hearing was held, during which Lucier and McQuade met with Vottis, who was accompanied by Bennett as his union representative. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 121, Dkt. No. 88:12.) At the hearing, Lucier and McQuade explained the allegations against Vottis, and, according to Bennett, Lucier repeated the claim that A.W.'s mother requested that her son's aide be changed. (See id. at ¶ 122; Pl. Resp. Mem. of Law at 2-3, Dkt. No. 89.) Ultimately, Lucier told Vottis that he could either resign or go through the termination process, and that he should discuss the choice with Bennett and let her know during the week. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 122, Dkt. No. 88:12.) According to Bennett, feeling Vottis was being treated unfairly, he questioned whether Lucier had gathered all the facts, including whether she had spoken with others who worked with Vottis, and inquired "why there was such a rush to judgment concerning Vottis." (Pl. Resp. Mem. of Law at 3, Dkt. No. 89.) Following the hearing, Bennett sent a memorandum to Lucier, which summarized his observances and comments that he had addressed at the hearing. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 123, Dkt. No. 88:12.) As with Bennett's December 1 letter, this memorandum was critical of the District's handling of the Vottis matter, noting that the hearing appeared to be nothing more than a "mere formality," and generally criticizing the tack taken by the District in disciplining teacher aides. (See Dec. 5, 2006 Mem., Dkt. No. 87:31.)

Later that same day, Bennett contacted Mrs. Hale by telephone, identifying himself as Teacher Aide Unit President of the CSEA. (See Defs. SMF at ¶¶ 124-25, Dkt. No. 88:12.) While the specifics of this conversation appear to be in dispute, Mrs. Hale testified that the two discussed "why [Mrs. Hale] wanted [Vottis] replaced or something to that effect." (Hale Dep. at 7, Dkt. No. 87:15.) According to Bennett, Mrs. Hale did not indicate that she had made any request to have Vottis replaced as A.W.'s aide. (See Pl. Resp. Mem. of Law at 3, Dkt. No. 89.) Mrs. Hale's testimony is consistent with this version of events. (See, e.g., Hale Dep. at 7, Dkt. No. 87:15.)

The next day, December 5, Bennett claims he met with Lucier and confronted her about the conversation he had with Mrs. Hale, accusing her of misrepresenting Mrs. Hale's viewpoint, and telling her that Vottis would not be resigning. (See id. at ¶ 133; Pl. Resp. Mem. of Law at 4, Dkt. No.89.) Bennett claims that Lucier became angry with Bennett for not taking her statement at face value and for being uncooperative regarding Vottis's discipline. (See Pl. Resp. Mem. of Law at 4, Dkt. No. 89.) Defendants deny that Lucier ever discussed the telephone call between Bennett and Mrs. Hale with Bennett. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 133, Dkt. No. 88:12.)

In further support of Vottis, Bennett gathered letters of support from, among others, Catholic Charities disabilities service coordinator Debbie Mieseng, teacher John Doolittle, teacher aide Audra Jones, and coach Ernest Ripepi. (See id. at ¶ 168.) These letters were then provided to High School Principal Richard Murphy in a letter. (See id. at ¶ 169.) According to Bennett, these efforts further angered Lucier. (See Bennett Aff. ¶ 69, Dkt. No. 91:3 (citing Lucier Dep. at 75-76).) Bennett also claims that his approach to representing Vottis did not sit well with defendant Thomas Rybaltowski, the District's Assistant Superintendent for Business. (See Pl. Resp. Mem. of Law at 4-6, Dkt. No. 89.) According to Linda Mosher, a CSEA representative with whom both Bennett and Rybaltowski worked, she had a conversation with Rybaltowski in December 2006, during which Rybaltowski indicated that disciplinary charges would likely be brought against Bennett in light of the "aggressive stance" he was taking in the representation of Vottis. (See Mosher Dep. at 15-18, Dkt. No. 87:17.)

Shortly thereafter, on December 18, McQuade restricted the use of the telephone in classroom K114, the classroom to which Bennett was assigned. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 156, Dkt. No. 88:12.) According to defendants, the restrictions were put in place because Ms. Hushmendy, the K114 classroom teacher, complained that the volume of telephone usage in the classroom was disruptive. (See id. at ¶¶ 148-154.) Under the restrictions, teacher aides in room K114 were required to log all incoming and outgoing calls, and could use the phone for "school business" only. (See id. at ¶ 156.) The restrictions also prohibited teacher aides from answering incoming calls, permitting only the classroom teacher or teaching assistant to answer the phone. (See id.)

Prior to the December 18 restrictions, Bennett received calls on the K114 telephone relating to his duties as a union representative-including calls from Lucier or teacher aides regarding disciplinary issues, from other CSEA unit people, and from Linda Mosher-as well as calls relating to his coaching duties and personal matters. (See id. at ¶ 142.) In a December 22 memorandum to McQuade, Bennett protested the phone restrictions, stating, among other things, that "[a]s the Unit President for CSEA I receive calls with regard to union business with regard to ongoing issues within the district. Under the Taylor Law I have the right to conduct this business and you are not allowed to interfere in [m]y ability to do so." (Bennett Aff., Ex. D, Dkt. No. 91:3.) Bennett further stated that "[y]our directive is disruptive to both the teacher and the aides and is an issue we need to discuss and work out." (Id.)

On January 22, 2007, Lucier met with Bennett, asked him to attend a meeting later that day, and strongly advised him to have a CSEA representative with him. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 185, Dkt. No. 88:12.) As requested, Bennett attended the meeting with Linda Mosher, his union representative. (See id. at ¶ 187.) During the meeting, Lucier served Bennett with formal disciplinary charges; put Bennett on thirty-day, unpaid administrative leave; and scheduled a formal disciplinary hearing for February 12, 2007. (See id.)

The District's process for bringing disciplinary charges is not entirely clear from the parties' submissions. (Compare id. at ¶ 181, with Pl. Resp. SMF ¶ 181, Dkt. No. 89:2.) Defendants contend that the decision to bring disciplinary charges against Bennett was made by Lucier, his direct supervisor, in consultation with the District's attorney, David Morris, who would then advise defendant Rybaltowski of the formal charges. (See Defs. SMF ¶¶ 6,181, Dkt. No. 88:12.) In line with this contention, defendants claim that the formal charges against Bennett were drafted by Morris, and that Rybaltowski was not involved in that process or with investigating the allegations or deciding to bring the charges. (See id. at ¶ 182.) According to defendants, "Rybaltowski simply [told Morris] that defendant Lucier had information regarding situations and that he ...

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