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Joanne Avella v. Valley Central School District

December 19, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Paul A. Crotty, United States District Judge:




Plaintiff Joanne Avella ("Avella") brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against defendants Valley Central School District (the "District") and the District's superintendant, Dr. Richard Hooley ("Hooley") (collectively, the "Defendants"), for an Equal Protection Clause violation. Avella served as the District's high school principal from July 1, 2008 through January 26, 2009. She claims that Defendants terminated her employment as principal for gender-based reasons.

Defendants move for summary judgment, arguing: (1) Avella has not established a prima facie case of gender discrimination; (2) Defendants had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for firing Avella; (3) Hooley's actions are protected by qualified immunity; and (4) Avella has not established Monell liability.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment.


Avella has been a teacher or school administrator for over twenty years. (Pl. Aff. ¶¶ 1, 2.) She is certified as a school administrator/supervisor and as a school district administrator, and she possesses two master's degrees, one in school administration. (Kleinberg Decl. Exhibit (hereinafter "Ex.") I.)

In early 2008, Avella applied for the District's high school principal position. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 28.) After an initial round of interviews, Avella, a male candidate, and one other candidate advanced to a second round of interviews for the position. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 35, Pl. 56.1 ¶ 35.) Avella then had a one-on-one interview with Hooley. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 40.) Avella alleges that during this interview, Hooley indicated that he "was tired of the big, burley men who just do discipline" and that he "wanted somebody who was familiar with academics." (Ex. H, 25.) Hooley stated that he "didn't care" that Pasquale Iorlano, a Board of Education ("Board") member, "was most opposed to hiring a woman because he didn't feel that a woman would handle the discipline of a high school." *fn2 (See Ex. H, 25.) Avella did not feel her gender was an issue for Hooley. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 49.)

Hooley recommended Avella to the Board, which voted six-to-one to hire her. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 53; Ex. K.) Mr. Iorlano was the sole Board member who voted against Avella. (See Ex. K.) Mr. Iorlano was also the sole Board member to vote against the appointment of both Ms. Voss and Mr. Antonelli as summer school co-principals at the meeting. (See Ex. K.) Avella was hired.

After Avella was hired, a hall monitor and a parent, both of whom sat on the committee that initially interviewed Avella, told her "in substance that 'the old boys' network wanted to hire a man.'" (Avella Aff. ¶ 9.)*fn3

On July 1, 2008, Avella began a probationary period of employment. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 69.) Around this time, Hooley suggested that Avella meet with each high school teacher on an individual basis. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 106.) Avella did not do so because she did not want to call the teachers in over the summer or impose on their personal time. (Ex. H 68-72.) Avella nonetheless approached and met several teachers during the school year. (Ex. H 68-72.)

During Avella's first month, a high school guidance counselor filed a grievance against Avella because she assigned him to work on a project that he believed was outside of his job responsibilities. (Def 56.1 ¶¶ 95-97; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 95-97.)

In September 2008, when Avella was hiring an assistant principal, Avella claims that Hooley told her "that the Board was angry enough at him as it is for hiring so many women" and "if you hire another woman I'll be in more trouble with the Board." (Ex. H, 144.)*fn4

In late October or early November 2008, Avella and her assistant principals learned of a problem involving a particular student wearing a scarf to symbolize gang affiliation. (Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 133-34.) Hooley asked Avella what types of scarves were at issue. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 141.) Avella alleges that she and the assistant principals explained that all scarves were at issue. (Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 141-42.) Hooley did not believe that Avella and the assistant principals adequately described the specific type of scarf at issue. (Def. 56.1. ¶ 142.) Hooley suggested Avella adopt a policy of calling students down on an individual basis and asking them to remove their scarves, and punishing only those students who failed to take off the scarves when directed. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 143.)

On November 7, 2008, an announcement banning all scarves was made over the high school intercom system. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 152, 153.) In response, the student body protested by wearing scarves to school and speaking out at a Board meeting. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 154, 156.) The protest led to news coverage. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 161.) After the protest, Hooley, having learned from a parent about the announcement banning scarves, asked Avella if an announcement had been made. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 164.) Avella had not known that an announcement had been made, and subsequently was unable to find out who made the announcement. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 166-168.) Avella concedes that the announcement should not have been made without her knowledge. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 170.)

On another occasion, an assistant principal told Avella that a student who suffers from allergic reactions needed, but did not have, an Epi-Pen to go on a school field trip. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 185). Avella alleges that the student's mother told the school that her child no longer needed an Epi-Pen. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 187.) Avella borrowed an Epi-Pen from another school, and authorized the student to go on the field trip with the borrowed medication. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 186-87.) Avella did not know whether it is permissible in New York to give a student an Epi-Pen that is prescribed to someone else. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 189.) An assistant principal testified that a school nurse filed a grievance concerning Avella's authorization allowing a student to ...

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