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O'Connor v. Huntington U.F.S.D.

United States District Court, E.D. New York

March 25, 2014



JOSEPH F. BIANCO, District Judge.

Patrick J. O'Connor ("O'Connor" or "plaintiff') brings this action against his former employer, the Huntington Union Free School District ("the District"), Joseph Leavy ("Leavy"), and John Amato ("Amato") (collectively, "defendants") for retaliation in violation of his First Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and for discrimination based on his perceived disability pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law ("HRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law § 296. Plaintiff alleges that the District constructively discharged him from his tenured teaching position after he (1) complained about cheating during the grading of statewide exams; and (2) informed supervisors that he suffered from anxiety and depression. Defendants move for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion as to the federal claims, and declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state claim.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

The Court takes the following facts from the parties' affidavits, depositions, exhibits, and Rule 56.1 Statements of Fact. The Court construes the facts in the light most favorable to O'Connor, the nonmoving party.[1] See Capobianco v. City of New York, 422 F.3d 47, 50 (2d Cir. 2005).

Plaintiff began working for the District in September 1998 and received tenure in 2001. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 1-2.) He taught social studies to seventh and eighth graders at Finley Middle School. ( Id. ¶ 7.) Despite being scheduled to teach during the 2008-2009 academic year, O'Connor resigned on August 22, 2008. ( Id. ¶¶ 3, 8.)

1. Plaintiffs Statements to His Supervisors

a. Alleged Improprieties during the Grading of a Statewide Examination

In June 2006, plaintiff and seven other Finley teachers graded the statewide eighth grade social studies examination under the unofficial oversight of Mike McCabe. ( Id. ¶ 90, 92.) Teachers could not grade their own students, and they graded the essays by a "round robin" whereby one teacher would grade an essay and then pass it to another. ( Id. ¶¶ 93-94.) Before grading began, Denise Dechiaro told plaintiff that they would give the students only fours or fives (out of five) on the essays. ( Id. ¶ 91.) In fact, while Rick Erickson was grading one of Dechiaro's students, Dechiaro asked Erickson why he was giving the student only a three or four. ( Id. ¶ 97.) Erickson told Dechiaro to not interrupt. ( Id. ¶¶ 98-99.) Plaintiff also told McCabe, "You need to do something. You need to stop Denise from doing this." (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 101.) McCabe instructed Dechiaro "to stop interrupting graders while they were grading the exam and asking for their scores, thus violating exam confidentiality." (Def. 56.1 ¶ 103.)

That fall, plaintiff began to question the grades' accuracy because he thought the scores were high for Finley given its demographics. ( Id. ¶ 104.) He believed that Dechiaro compromised the grading of the essay sections by questioning the scorers, although O'Connor never asked McCabe or Erickson if they raised any grades because of Dechiaro's interruptions. ( Id. ¶¶ 105, 107.) Plaintiff, however, knew of no other teacher who may have misgraded exams. ( Id ¶ 108.) Nevertheless, he reported what occurred to Amato (the Principal) and Leavy (the Director of Humanities), who agreed to investigate. ( Id. ¶¶ 109-113) According to O'Connor, Leavy also said, "Patrick, you are aware that you're going to destroy any relationship that you have with your colleagues, and that you are to prepare for the roller coaster ride of your career." (Leavy Dep., Def. Ex. D, at 95:11-15.) Leavy notified Mike O'Brien, the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, of the allegations. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 114.) After investigating and reviewing essays and corresponding grades, Leavy found no evidence of grade inflation. ( Id. ¶ 116.)

b. Anxiety and Depression

Plaintiff began experiencing anxiety attacks in 2003 ( Id. ¶ 126), and his doctor, James Wheeler, diagnosed him with dysthymia in 2004 ( id. ¶ 127.) Plaintiff and his physician never gave the District notes regarding the condition. ( Id. ¶¶ 128-29.) Plaintiff first told Amato and Leavy he was depressed and anxious in Fall 2006. ( Id. ¶¶ 130, 135.) He said his symptoms stemmed from mistreatment by three other teachers.[2] ( Id. ¶¶ 131, 136.) During the 2007-2008 academic year, O'Connor told Amato and Leavy he was seeing a counselor. ( Id. ¶¶ 132, 138.) Amato testified that plaintiff never said he suffered from clinical depression or anxiety. ( Id. ¶ 133.) Plaintiff never requested an accommodation for his condition. ( See id. ¶ 139.)

2. Plaintiff's Performance Reviews and Improvement Projects

Teachers at Finley receive Annual Professional Performance Reviews ("APPRs"). ( Id. ¶ 12.) Plaintiff's APPRs from 2001 through 2005 were positive, although they recommended improvement in management of student behavior (2002 APPR, Gould Aff. Ex. 5), student development and assessment (2003 APPR, Gould Aff. Ex. 6), and preparation of appropriate materials and awareness of state educational standards (2005 APPR, Gould Aff. Ex. 8). The 2005 APPR was the last evaluation by Leavy's predecessor, Debra Haskins. She encouraged plaintiff to develop skills for statewide assessments and preparing lesson materials. ( Id. at 2.)

Leavy became the Director of Humanities on July 1, 2005. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 16.) He reviewed plaintiff's file early on because plaintiff had a less than effective evaluation in previous APPRs. ( Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) In 2006, Leavy rated plaintiff as effective in his knowledge of the content area and instructional delivery, but took issue with plaintiff's preparation of classroom materials, understanding of state standards, and classroom management. (2006 APPR, Gould Aff. Ex. 9.) Leavy encouraged adjustments to lesson planning and preparation of materials to ensure adherence to the statewide curriculum for seventh graders. ( Id. at 2.) Nonetheless, he characterized the 2006 APPR as "generally effective." (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 26.)

John Amato became principal of Finley on July 1, 2006. (Def 56.1 ¶ 28) Plaintiff's 2007 APPR was based on two formal observations and several shorter informal observations by Leavy and Amato. ( Id. ¶ 29.) Leavy observed plaintiff on March 27, 2007. (March 2007 Observation Report, Gould Aff. Ex. 10.) Leavy noted plaintiff's command of the content and thought the preparation of the lesson was fair, but was concerned about plaintiff's classroom control, time management, and simplistic pedagogical practices. ( Id. ) Amato gave a more positive assessment in December 2006. ( See December 2006 Observation Report, Gould Aff. Ex. 11.)

The 2007 APPR was more negative than previous ones. Leavy and Amato took issue with plaintiff's preparation, instructional delivery, classroom management, and student assessment. (2007 APPR, Gould Aff. Ex. 12.) Consequently, Leavy instituted a Plan for Accountability and Monitoring ("PAM"). The PAM required plaintiffto submit detailed lesson plans and curriculum maps to ensure effective instruction in the classroom; provided for three unannounced observations per month; required submission of the grade book to supervisors to show a link between assessments and instructions; required plaintiff to visit colleagues' classrooms; and provided for conferencing at any time to ensure adjustments for improvement. (PAM, Gould Aff. Ex. 2.) The PAM led to twenty-six observations of plaintiff during the 2007-2008 academic year. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 57.) Leavy observed O'Connor at least seven times, and most of the evaluations were critical of plaintiff's performance. ( See 2007-2008 Leavy Classroom Observations, Gould Aff. Exs. 14-17, 20, 22.) Amato formally observed plaintiff three times and found the lessons to be generally satisfactory. ( See 2007-2008 Amato Classroom Observations, Gould Aff. Exs. 18, 19, 21.)

Plaintiff's 2008 APPR also was negative. Leavy and Amato took issue with plaintiff's knowledge of the content area, preparation, instructional delivery, classroom management, student assessment, and reflective and responsive practice. (2008 APPR, Gould Aff. Ex. 25.) They noted plaintiff's failure to adhere to the PAM and to proactively improve his performance. ( See id. at 2-3.) Thus, Leavy proposed a Teacher Improvement Plan ("TIP"). The TIP, which never went into effect because plaintiff resigned, provided for, inter alia, weekly submission of detailed lesson plans to ensure effective classroom instruction and teaching targets; weekly professional periods; submission of major classroom assignments to ensure a link between the lesson and assessments; grade book reviews; weekly unannounced classroom observations; and effective classroom management. (TIP, Gould Aff. Ex. 3.)

3. Complaints about Leavy and Plaintiffs Resignation

Plaintiff made efforts to address his relationship with Leavy, the deterioration of which plaintiff attributed to "[n]umerous unannounced observations, pedantic and punitive criticism, lack of constructive support, micromanagement of instruction." (Def. 56.1 ¶ 185.) For instance, plaintiff met with Assistant Superintendent Joseph Giani several times to complain about the treatment from Leavy. (E.g., id. ¶ 192.) For instance, Plaintiff said he felt he was being harassed and wanted Leavy removed as his supervisor. ( Id. ¶¶ 193-94.) Giani told plaintiff to follow the recommended program and assured him that he was not in danger of being fired. ( Id. ¶ 195.) Giani also told Leavy to be supportive of plaintiff and to give suggestions for improvement. ( Id. ¶ 197.) After additional complaints in March 2008, Giani again told plaintiff to relax. ( Id. ¶¶ 201, 203.) Giani said plaintiff was capable of meeting expectations. ( Id. ¶ 204.)

Nonetheless, after the preparation of the TIP and shortly before the 2008-2009 academic year, plaintiffs psychologist advised plaintiff that continuing to work at the District would be detrimental to his health. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 3.) Dr. Wheeler recommended that plaintiff resign to avoid the stress of constant observations. ( Id. ¶¶ 3, 271.) Plaintiff tendered his resignation on August 22, 2008. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 3.)

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed the complaint on March 16, 2011. Defendants answered on April 15, 2011. On May 21, 2012, defendants moved to amend their answer to add a res judicata defense and, upon such amendment, for summary judgment. On July 24, 2012, for reasons set forth orally on the record, the Court denied the motion to amend because of the prejudice to plaintiff due to the defendants' delay in seeking the amendment, as well as on grounds of futility. Defendants filed the instant motion on July 8, 2013. Plaintiff opposed on September 13, 2013, and defendants replied on October 4, 2013. The Court held oral argument on October 22, 2013.

II. Standard of Review

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), a court may only grant a motion for summary judgment if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of showing that he or she is entitled to summary judgment. Huminski v. Corsones, 396 F.3d 53, 69 (2d Cir. 2005). "A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The court "is not to weigh the evidence but is instead required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party, and to eschew credibility assessments." Amnesty Am. v. Town of W. Hartford, 361 F.3d 113, 122 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 854 (2d Cir. 1996)); see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (summary judgment is unwarranted if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party").

Once the moving party has met its burden, the opposing party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.... [T]he nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Caldarola v. Calabrese, 298 F.3d 156, 160 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)). As the Supreme Court stated in Anderson, "[i]f the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted). Indeed, "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties" alone will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. Id. at 247-48. Thus, the nonmoving party may not rest upon mere conclusory allegations or denials but must set forth "'concrete particulars'" showing that a trial is needed. R.G. Grp., Inc. v. Horn & Hardart Co., 751 F.2d 69, 77 (2d Cir. 1984) (quoting SEC v. Research Automation Corp., 585 F.2d 31, 33 (2d Cir. 1978)). ...

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