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Jene-Elise Stahura-Uhl v. Iroquois Central School District

December 15, 2011

JENE-ELISE STAHURA-UHL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
IROQUOIS CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, NEIL ROCHELLE, BRIAN WEISINGER, KIMBERLY OAR, AND KRISTEN KENDALL-JAKUS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court

DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Jene-Elise Stahura-Uhl, brings this action against the Iroquois Central School District ("School District" or "District") and four individual defendants, all of whom served in a supervisory capacity for the School District. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants unlawfully retaliated against her for exercising her rights under the First Amendment and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 ("Section 504" or "Rehabilitation Act"). She further alleges state law defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. Presently before this Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss (Docket No. 23). For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted with respect to Stahura-Uhl's First Amendment and state law claims, and the motion is denied regarding her Section 504 claims.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts*fn1

Stahura-Uhl's allegations arise out of her employment as a special education teacher for the School District, a position she began in the 2000-2001 school year at Wales Primary School. (Amended Complaint ¶ 11-12; Docket No. 20.) Plaintiff, according to her complaint, received accolades for her work during the first few years of her employment. (Id. ¶ 16-18.) That began to change in the 2006-2007 school year when Defendants Oar, as Principal of Wales, and Kendall-Jakus, as Director of Instruction, were assigned as her supervisors. (Id. ¶ 19.) Stahura-Uhl alleges that Oar, under the direction of Kendall-Jakus, consistently deprived her disabled students of necessary equipment and resources that were mandated by state and federal law. (Id. ¶ 20.) Specifically, she alleges that Individual Education Plans ("IEP") were not followed (Id. ¶ 24), that IEPs were modified without hearings (Id. ¶ 85), that requests for personal aides were summarily denied (Id. ¶ 34), that personal aides, and in particular the personal aide of "Student A," were improperly removed from her classroom (Id. ¶¶ 55-58, 130), and that a higher functioning, regular education student was improperly placed in the same classroom as her special education students. (Id. ¶ 38.)

Stahura-Uhl claims that throughout her tenure at the School District she attempted, through various means, to rectify these problems as they arose. In a September of 2006 meeting, for example, she reported problems and requested, among other things, additional classroom support from Oar, who allegedly denied Plaintiff's request and criticized her for making it. (Id. ¶¶ 29-31.)

Later, Stahura-Uhl called the mother of the student whom she believed needed a personal aide, and discussed with her federal and state regulations pertaining to that subject. (Id. ¶ 35.)

Regarding the higher functioning student in her class, she complained to Oar (Id. 41), and called the School District's social worker and psychologist in an effort to find a more suitable placement. (Id. ¶¶ 42-43.)

She also complained to Oar and Kendall-Jakus regarding the IEP modifications, resource deficiencies, and removal of personal aides. (Id. ¶¶ 60, 72.) In a September of 2007 meeting with Oar and Kendall-Jakus, Stahura-Uhl complained that she lacked adequate planning time and that mainstreaming*fn2 her students -- as Kendall-Jakus planned to do -- was inappropriate. (Id. ¶¶ 80-82.) When Kendall-Jakcus did not heed her complaints, Stahura-Uhl once again contacted Kendall-Jakus to express her concerns about the special education program. (Id. ¶ 89.) Stahura-Uhl then contacted the parents of her students to instruct them of this change and to inform them that the change violated various regulations. (Id. ¶ 87.) She also discussed these "unlawful acts" with her co-workers. (Id. ¶¶ 43, 87.)

Subsequently, in November of 2007, at a meeting with Oar and Kendall-Jakus, Stahura-Uhl again tried to raise the issue concerning the lack of personal aides, and her request was again denied. (Id. ¶¶ 113-114.)

Regarding Kendall-Jakus' decision to remove the personal aide from "Student A," Stahura-Uhl asserts that she attended the students' Committee on Special Education ("CSE") meeting and expressed her views that the aide should not be removed. (Id. ¶ 130-131.) She also discussed this problem with Student A's grandmother. (Id.)

None of the perceived deficiencies asserted in her complaints were ever corrected, instead, as detailed below, Stahura-Uhl claims that she was repeatedly retaliated against for raising her concerns. (Id. ¶ 77)

First, Stahura-Uhl alleges that, in January 2007, she was issued a "Summary of Supervision," which appears to be a memorandum containing demerits against her record. (Id. ¶ 47.) Thereafter, Oar told the School District staff that Stahura-Uhl was "unprofessional," "promoting adversarial relationships," and "was not performing her duties in a competent manner." (Id. ¶ 52.) Oar also, "through statements and innuendo," informed Plaintiff's colleagues that anyone who aligned with Stahura-Uhl would be treated in a similar fashion. (Id. ¶ 55.)

Stahura-Uhl believes that she was often the victim of selective punishment for trivial violations such as allowing an aide to supervise students on the playground (Id. ¶ 67) and arriving mere minutes late. (Id. ¶106.) She further asserts that notes detailing these reprimands were "maliciously inserted" into her employment file. (Id. ¶ 71.)

She also believes she was passed over for a transfer to another school and claims that she was reprimanded for applying for the transfer. (Id. ¶ 96.)

In late 2007, Neil Rochelle, the School District's Superintendent, informed David Uhl, Plaintiff's union representative, that if Stahura-Uhl continued to express her concerns about the School District's policies to the children's parents, disciplinary action would be taken against her. (Id. ¶ 100.) Rochelle advised Uhl to instruct Stahura-Uhl to refrain from such activity. (Id.) With that, Stahura-Uhl ceased contacting School District parents. (Id. ¶ 103.)

Stahura-Uhl also alleges that Kendall-Jakus reprimanded her when she called another teacher concerning Student A's ability to function without his aide (Id. ¶ 144), and that notes regarding this discussion were again "maliciously inserted" in her file. (Id. ¶ 145).

In further retaliation, Stahura-Uhl alleges that Kendall-Jakus closely monitored her teaching (Id. ¶ 149) and, along with the Rochelle, suspended her for six days at the end of the 2006-2007 school year. (Id. ¶ 153.) The reasons for suspension contained false information and were allegedly distributed to "others at the district." (Id. ¶ 155).

In the summer of 2008, after a meeting with Rochelle, Kendall-Jakus, and the School District's legal counsel, Stahura-Uhl was told by her union representative that if she insisted on continuing her employment with the District or attempted to "clear her name," that the District would "blackball" her and "force[] her out of a job." (Id. ¶ 163.)

Stahura-Uhl was also frequently transferred around the District, including transfers in December 2007 (Id. ¶ 117), at the end of the 2007-2008 school year (Id. ¶ 167), and twice more between June and August of 2009 (Id. ¶ 178.) She considers each of these transfers a demotion. (Id. ¶¶ 117, 167, 168, 178 .) After the first transfer, Kendall-Jakus instructed her not to discuss the transfer with any parents and that if she did, she would face disciplinary action. (Id. ¶ 120.) As noted above, Stahura-Uhl feels all of these acts were taken in retaliation for expressing dissent.

B. Procedural History

Stahura-Uhl filed a complaint in this Court on September 4, 2009 (Docket No. 1), which Defendants moved to dismiss on November 13, 2009 (Docket No. 5). Thereafter, Stahura-Uhl cross-moved for leave to file an amended complaint (Docket No. 10), which was eventually stipulated to and filed on January 13, 2010 (Docket Nos. 18, 20.) Defendants filed the present motion to dismiss on February 12, 2010. (Docket No. 23.)

III. DISCUSSION

A. Motion to Dismiss Standard -- Rule 12(b)(6)

Rule 12 (b)(6) allows dismissal of a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12 (b)(6). Federal pleading standards are generally not stringent: Rule 8 requires only a short and plain statement of a claim. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8 (a)(2). But the plain statement must "possess enough heft to show that the pleader is entitled to relief." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1966, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007).

When determining whether a complaint states a claim, the court must construe it liberally, accept all factual allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. ATSI Commc'ns, Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007).

Legal conclusions, however, are not afforded the same presumption of truthfulness. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009) ("The tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations ...


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