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Kristina Kiehle v. County of Cortland

July 8, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas J. McAVOY, Senior United States District Judge



Plaintiff commenced this action asserting claims of First Amendment retaliation following Plaintiff's discharge from her position as a probationary caseworker for the County of Cortland Department of Social Services. Compl., dkt. # 1. Defendants move for summary judgment seeking to dismiss the case in its entirety. Dkt. # 21. Plaintiff has opposed the motion. Dkt. # 22. For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted.


On a motion for summary judgment the Court must construe the properly disputed facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, see Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 1776 (2007), and may grant summary judgment only where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). An issue is genuine if the relevant evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of informing the Court of the basis for the motion and of identifying those portions of the record that the moving party believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact as to a dispositive issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1). If the movant is able to establish a prima facie basis for summary judgment, the burden of production shifts to the party opposing summary judgment who must produce evidence establishing the existence of a factual dispute that a reasonable jury could resolve in his favor. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). While the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor, Abramson v. Pataki, 278 F.3d 93, 101 (2d Cir. 2002), a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon "mere allegations or denials" asserted in his pleadings. Rexnord Holdings, Inc. v. Bidermann, 21 F.3d 522, 525-26 (2d Cir. 1994); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Summary judgment will be granted when it is apparent on the facts presented that no rational trier of fact could find in favor of the nonmoving party because evidence supporting the essential elements of the non-movant's claim is lacking. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322.


PlaintiffKristina Kiehle was employed as a caseworker by the County of Cortland Department of Social Services ("DSS") from April 7, 2008 until August 18, 2008. During this time she was considered a probationary employee. This case arises from Plaintiff's testimony on August 18, 2008 at a New York State Family Court hearing to determine whether a child, removed from the home on a neglect petition, could be returned to her home.

Plaintiff worked as a caseworker in DSS's foster and preventive care unit. In this capacity, Plaintiff worked with families who had children removed from their homes, or who were in danger of being removed. Plaintiff had a caseload of approximately ten (10) families. The instant case concerns a family that was part of Plaintiff's caseload.

When Plaintiff was assigned as a caseworker for a family, she was required to meet with her supervisor to learn about the case, to review the existing case file, and to speak with the supervisor about the progress of the case. Plaintiff's direct supervisor was Defendant Maureen Spann. A caseworker was required to maintain in each file caseworker progress notes documenting the caseworker's work with a family, and up-to-date Family Assessment Service Plans (FASP). Plaintiff admits, however, that she was unable to keep up on her progress notes although Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she kept her progress notes up to date "as best I could . . . as time permitted, as best I could." Plaintiff did not recall at her deposition if her progress notes were put in the files within a month of the events that were to be recorded, or whether her FASPs were up to date.

As a new caseworker, Plaintiff was required to attend the Child Protective Services Core Training program. Prior to attending the Core Training Program, and prior to Plaintiff's Family Court testimony which is the focus of this case, it was Spann's opinion that there was a "50/50 chance" that Plaintiff would be terminated because of poor work performance. Spann asserts that there had been talk of terminating Plaintiff but Spann advocated to give Plaintiff a chance after the completion of Core Training to see if Plaintiff could "pull it together."

With regard to the particular family in issue in this case, Plaintiff visited the family, met with a mental health counselor and the mother in June of 2008, and transmitted to Spann the mother's request to temporarily place the daughter into DSS custody and leave the son at home. Spann denied the request. Plaintiff also met with the family several more times in June and July 2008 while the son was in DSS custody on a Person In Need of Supervision ("PINS") placement, and the daughter was still at home. Plaintiff was aware that the son was behaving much better while in the foster home while the daughter remained a problem living at home with the mother.

On the Friday before the August 18, 2008 hearing, Plaintiff returned from Core Training and talked to Spann. Spann advised Plaintiff that the subject family's daughter had been removed from the home through a neglect petition filed by Spann while Plaintiff was at Core Training. Plaintiff was also advised that a Family Court hearing would be held at 9:30 on the following Monday (August 18) on the mother's petition to return the daughter to her home. Spann told Plaintiff to attend the hearing, that Spann would be testifying for the Department, and that Plaintiff's job would be to take notes at the hearing.

Plaintiff acknowledges that, before the hearing, she did not review the progress notes from the time that she was at the Core Training program during which the daughter was removed from the home.

At the hearing, Plaintiff was identified by the mother's attorney as a witness for the mother, and Plaintiff was excluded from the courtroom until she was called to testify. When she was called to the stand, Plaintiff testified that she began as a caseworker in the DSS's foster and preventive care unit on April 7, 2008. She further testified that, despite the family being part of her active caseload, she: (a) had not read all of the prior caseworker's progress notes and could not recall how many times the prior caseworker had recorded that the son was in the household alone when his behavior was out of control; (b) acknowledged that it was the mother's idea to have the daughter placed in DSS care; (c) was unaware how long Liberty Resources, a parenting skills program, had been working with the mother on parenting skills; (d) did not know whether there had been any psychological or medical diagnosis made for either of the children; and (f) had not seen the DSS neglect petition that prompted the daughter's removal. Nevertheless, ...

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