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Corene D. Carter v. City of Syracuse School District

March 19, 2012

CORENE D. CARTER A/K/A/ CORENE BROWN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF SYRACUSE SCHOOL DISTRICT, DANIEL LOWENGARD, JOHN DITTMAN, JILL STEWART, JOHN DOE(S), AND JANE DOE(S), DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Senior Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Corene D. Carter, an employee of Defendant City of Syracuse School District ("Defendant School District") as an English teacher since 1988, asserts eighteen causes of action against Defendants arising from their allegedly discriminatory conduct in the workplace on the basis of her race and gender.

II. BACKGROUND*fn1

In 2007, Plaintiff sought and was granted a transfer to a high school level teaching position at Defendant School District's Institute of Technology ("Institute of Technology"). She taught ninth grade English at the Institute of Technology for the 2007-2008 school year and tenth grade English for the 2008-2009 school year.

Plaintiff alleges that her co-workers would regularly interrupt her class; and, when Plaintiff informed Defendant John Dittman, the Principal of the Institute of Technology at the time, of the interruptions, he agreed that such conduct was motivated by her race and gender but refused to take any corrective action. See Proposed Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 23-24. Plaintiff also complained to Defendant Daniel Lowengard, Defendant School District's Superintendent, about various other acts of alleged racial and gender discrimination in the workplace.

In March of 2009, Defendant Jill Stewart, Defendant School District's Coordinator of Health Careers Program, observed Plaintiff teaching a tenth grade class. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Stewart performed a "sham evaluation" of her performance. See id. at ¶ 33. Plaintiff was thereafter placed on an "Assistance Plan for Improvement" ("Assistance Plan"); and, as a result, she "became ineligible to participate in such programs as 'Master Teacher', causing her a loss of income." See id. at ¶ 35. Later, on April 27, 2009, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights ("NYSDHR") and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"),*fn2 alleging unlawful discrimination on the basis of race stemming from Defendants' issuance of the Assistance Plan.

Although Plaintiff returned to teach at the Institute of Technology at the start of the 2009-2010 school year, she soon commenced an extended leave of absence due to work-related stress from which she has not returned. In August 2010, Plaintiff alleges that her psychiatrist authorized her to return to work, but she refused to do so because Defendant School District would only allow her to return to her formerly-held teaching position at the Institute of Technology, rather than a different teaching position at another school, as her psychiatrist had recommended. See id. at ¶¶ 39-41.

Plaintiff's proposed amended complaint*fn3 alleges eighteen causes of action, pursuant to (1) Title VII against Defendant School District for racial discrimination; (2) the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL") against Defendants School District and Lowengard for racial and gender discrimination; (3) the NYSHRL against Defendants Dittman and Stewart for racial and gender discrimination; (4) Title VII against Defendant School District for unlawful retaliation; (5) the NYSHRL against Defendants School District and Lowengard for unlawful retaliation; (6) the NYSHRL against Defendants Dittman and Stewart for unlawful retaliation; (7) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants for subjecting Plaintiff to a hostile work environment and discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (8) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant School District for an unlawful custom, practice or policy and a failure to train; (9) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants for unlawful retaliation in violation of the First Amendment and against Defendant School District for an custom, policy or practice and for a failure to train; (10) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant School District for an unlawful custom, practice or policy and for discriminatory hiring, discipline, lack of promotion, retaliation, and disparate treatment of women and minorities; (11) breach of contract; (12) 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against Defendants for subjecting Plaintiff to a hostile work environment because of her race; (13) 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against Defendants for subjecting Plaintiff to disparate treatment because of her race; (14) 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against Defendants for unlawful retaliation because of her race; (15) common law tortious interference with a contractual relationship against Defendants; (16) Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against Defendant School District for racial discrimination; (17) Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972 against Defendant School District for gender discrimination; and (18) the Rehabilitation Act against Defendant School District for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Currently before the Court are two motions: Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings or for summary judgment and Plaintiff's cross-motion to amend her complaint and for discovery pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 56(f).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Plaintiff's cross-motion for leave to amend the complaint

Pursuant to Rule 15(a), which governs a party's ability to amend its pleadings after responsive pleadings have been served but before trial, a court should liberally grant a party leave to amend its pleadings "when justice so requires." Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(2). A court should only deny leave to amend "for such reasons as 'undue delay, bad faith, futility of the amendment, and perhaps most important, the resulting prejudice to the opposing party.'" Richardson Greenshields Sec., Inc. v. Lau, 825 F.2d 647, 653 n.6 (2d Cir. 1987) (quotation omitted). The party opposing the requested relief has the burden of establishing that the amendment would be futile or unduly prejudicial. See Manigaulte v. C.W. Post of Long Island Univ., 659 F. Supp. 2d 367, 377 (E.D.N.Y. 2009) (citations omitted). Where leave to amend is opposed on the grounds of futility, a court should analyze the proposed amendments under Rule 12(b)(6). See id. (quotation omitted).

Here, Defendants oppose Plaintiff's motion to amend because, they argue, her amendments would be futile.*fn4 Plaintiff's proposed amended complaint adds three new causes of action: (1) for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d ("Title VI") (sixteenth cause of action); (2) for violations of Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 ("Title IX") (seventeenth cause of action); and (3) for violations of the Rehabilitation Act ("RA") (eighteenth cause of action), as well as several factual allegations related to these causes of action as well as the ones contained in her original complaint.

1. Proposed cause of action sixteen: Title VI against Defendant School District for racial discrimination Title VI states that "[n]o person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. In order to state an actionable claim under Title VI, a plaintiff must establish the following: "(1) the defendant received federal financial assistance, (2) the plaintiff was an intended beneficiary of the program or activity receiving the assistance, and (3) the defendant discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of race, color, or national origin in connection with that program or activity." Martin v. State Univ. of N.Y., 704 F. Supp. 2d 202, 233 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (citations omitted); see also Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir. 2001) (quotations and other citations omitted). Furthermore, a plaintiff cannot maintain an employment discrimination claim under Title VI unless "a primary objective of the Federal financial assistance is to provide employment." 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-3; see Ass'n Against Discrimination in Emp't, Inc. v. City of Bridgeport, 647 F.2d 256, 276 (2d Cir. 1981) (quotation omitted).

Plaintiff's proposed amended complaint alleges that Defendant School District "is a recipient of Federal funding which uses said funding to operate its programs and activities" and that she was "denied the benefits of and subjected to discrimination on account of her race by [Defendant School District]." See Proposed Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 103-104. Even accepting these allegations as true, Plaintiff has not alleged that Defendant School District was receiving federal funds in connection with any specific program or activity for which she was an "intended beneficiary" nor has she "alleged facts tending to show that any such program discriminated against her on the basis of her race in connection therewith." Kelly v. Rice, 375 F. Supp. 2d 203, 209 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (citation omitted). The Court finds that this pleading deficiency is fatal to her Title VI claim. Accordingly, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion to amend her complaint to add a sixteenth cause of action under Title VI because it would be futile to bring this claim. See id. at 208-09 (citations omitted).

2. Proposed cause of action seventeen: Title IX against Defendant School District for gender discrimination Title IX is parallel to Title VI, except that it prohibits sex discrimination, not race discrimination. See Gebser v. Lago Vista Indep. Sch. Dist., 524 U.S. 274, 286 (1998) (citations omitted). The statute provides that "[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a).

"'The Second Circuit "has not ruled whether an employee of a federally-funded educational institution can use Title IX to seek redress for employment discrimination on the basis of sex."'" Summa v. Hofstra Univ., No. CV 08-0361, 2011 WL 1343058, *17 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 7, 2011) (quotation omitted). District courts in this circuit are likewise divided on the issue. See id. at *18 (dismissing the plaintiff's Title IX discrimination claim because "the better argument is to limit an employee's avenue of redress to Title VII" (citations omitted)); George v. Liverpool Cent. Sch. Dist., No. 97-CV-1232, 2000 WL 1499342, *13 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2000) (agreeing "with the holdings of . . . district court decisions which have likewise declined to entertain sex discrimination cases under Title IX where the plaintiff is an employee with recourse under Title VII" (citations omitted)); Urie v. Yale Univ., 331 F. Supp. 2d 94, 97-98 (D. Conn. 2004) (dismissing Plaintiff's private claims for employment discrimination under Title IX because "Title IX was not intended to enable employees of educational institutions complaining of gender discrimination to bypass the remedial scheme Congress established in Title VII" (citations omitted)). But see Kohlhausen v. SUNY Rockland Cmty. Coll., No. 7:10-CV-3168, 2011 WL 1404934, *9 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 9, 2011) (holding that "Title IX provides a private right of action against gender discrimination to employees of federally-funded educational institutions, and . . . this Title IX right of action is not preempted although a remedy under Title VII is also available").

The weight of authority in this circuit outside of the Southern District supports a finding that Title VII provides the exclusive means under which a plaintiff may recover for employment discrimination on the basis of sex. Accordingly, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion to amend insofar as she seeks to add a seventeenth cause of action pursuant to Title IX because it would be futile to do so.

3. Proposed cause of action eighteen: Rehabilitation Act against Defendant School District for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation*fn5

The RA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or institution that receives federal financial assistance. See 29 U.S.C. § 794. To establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination premised on an employer's failure to accommodate, a plaintiff must show that (1) she is an individual with a disability within the meaning of the RA; (2) her employer had notice of the disability; (3) she could perform the essential functions of the job sought with reasonable accommodation; and (4) her employer failed to make such accommodation. See Stone v. City of Mount Vernon, 118 F.3d 92, 96-97 (2d Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). Courts analyze claims of discrimination under the RA according to the burden-shifting test set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), and the plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case. See Ruiz v. Cnty. of Rockland, 609 F.3d 486, 491 (2d Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). Thus, to be entitled to the protections of the RA, the plaintiff must qualify as "disabled" under the statute.*fn6

The RA defines "disability" by reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), see 29 U.S.C. §§ 705(20)(B), 794(d), and the standards for maintaining an employment discrimination claim under the RA are "effectively the same" as those under the ADA. See Civic Ass'n of Deaf of New York City, Inc. v. City of New York, No. 95 Civ. 8591, 2011 WL 5995182, *10 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 29, 2011) (citation omitted). Accordingly, references herein to the ADA should be read to include the RA. The ADA defines disability as "(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;" "(B) a record of such an impairment;" or "(C) being regarded as having such an impairment . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1).

Here, Plaintiff apparently alleges that her work-related stress condition renders her "actually disabled" within the meaning of the RA, which would require her to establish that (1) she suffers from a physical or mental impairment; (2) the impairment affects a major life activity; and (3) the impairment substantially limits that major life activity. See Weixel v. Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, 287 F.3d 138, 147 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing [Colwell v. Suffolk Cnty. Police Dep't, 158 F.3d 635, 641 (2d Cir. 1998)], superseded by statute on other grounds by 42 U.S.C. § 12102(3)(A)) (other citation omitted).

Plaintiff alleges that her "work related stress condition renders her disabled within the meaning of the [RA]," that "she can perform the essential functions of the job with a reasonable accommodation," and that she "requested and was denied a reasonable accommodation." See Proposed Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 110-112. Plaintiff further asserts that she "began treatment with a psychiatrist and was placed on medication for work related stress" and that she "was taken out of work by her treating psychiatrist on or about October 26, 2009 due to work related stress." See id. at ¶¶ 35, 39. On August 24, 2010, following an extended absence from work, Plaintiff alleges that her psychiatrist "authorized" her to return to work; yet, he recommended that Defendants transfer her to a school other than the Institute of Technology. See id. at ¶ 40. She alleges that "Defendants refused [her] doctor's requested accommodation and, to date, she has not been returned to work." See id. at ¶ 41. In essence, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants have denied her request for reasonable accommodation in the form of reassignment to another position away from the school and staff that allegedly caused her disability.

Plaintiff's allegations fail to even suggest that her work-related stress condition limited or impaired - substantially or otherwise - her ability to engage in any major life activity. Plaintiff's bare and conclusory allegation that her "work related stress condition renders her disabled" is insufficient to meet the pleading requirements discussed above. Accordingly, even under the ADAAA's substantially-broadened definition of disability, see ADA Amendments Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-325 (2008), the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to allege facts tending to show that she was or is disabled within the meaning of the RA. See Cusack v. Delphi Corp., 686 F. Supp. 2d 254, 257-58 (W.D.N.Y. 2010) (citation omitted); Lee v. Sony BMG Music Entm't, Inc., 557 F. Supp. 2d 418, 424-25 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (citations omitted). Thus, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion to amend insofar as she seeks to add an eighteenth cause of action pursuant to the RA because it would be futile to do so.*fn7

In sum, therefore, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion to amend with respect to her sixteenth (Title VI), seventeenth (Title IX), and eighteenth (RA) causes of action because it would be futile to bring these claims. However, given the early stage of this litigation and the fact that neither bad faith nor undue prejudice has been shown, the Court grants Plaintiff leave to amend her complaint in all other respects.

B. Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings*fn8 Viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, "[j]udgment on the pleadings is appropriate where material facts are undisputed and where a judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings." Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988) (citation omitted); see also Davidson v. Flynn, 32 F.3d 27, 29 (2d Cir. 1994) (quotation and other citation omitted). Courts apply the "same standard as that applicable to a motion under Rule 12(b)(6)" and thus "accept the allegations contained in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant . . . ." Sheppard v. Beerman, 18 F.3d 147, 150 (2d Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Rule 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief[.]" Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). This pleading standard does not require "detailed factual allegations," but it does require "more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action . . . ." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). Finally, in deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, a court may consider the pleadings, documents attached thereto as exhibits, documents incorporated by reference, documents that are integral to the complaint, and matters upon which the court may take judicial notice. See Holland v. City of New York, No. 10 Civ. 2525, 2011 WL 6306727, *3 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 16, 2011) (quotations and other citations omitted).

1. Notice-of-claim requirements

New York Education Law § 3813 provides that a plaintiff must comply with certain notice-of-claim requirements prior to bringing suit against a school district. See N.Y. Educ. Law § 3813(1) & (2); see Saunders v. NYC Dep't of Educ., No. 07 CV 2725, 2010 WL 2816321, *22 (E.D.N.Y. July 15, 2010) (quotation and other citations omitted). New York Education Law § 3813(1) applies to Plaintiff's NYSHRL and breach-of-contract claims and § 3813(2) applies ...


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