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Leon v. Dep't of Educ.

United States District Court, E.D. New York

April 29, 2014

LILLIE LEON, Plaintiff,
THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, a/k/a THE CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK; PAULA CUNNINGHAM, in her Individual and Official capacities; NERIDA URBAN, in her Individual and Official capacities; and HARVEY KATZ, in his Individual and Official capacities, Defendants

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For Lillie Leon, Plaintiff: Stewart Lee Karlin, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Law Offices of Stewart Lee Karlin, P.C., New York, NY.

For N.Y.C. Department of Education, also known as The City School District of the City of New York, Defendant: Andre Leon Lindsay, Jeremy Ian Huntone, LEAD ATTORNEYS, NYC Law Department, New York, NY; James L. Hallman, LEAD ATTORNEY, New York City Law Department, Office of The Corporation Counsel, New York, NY; Shakera Khandakar, New York City Law Department, New York, NY.

For Paula Cunningham, in her Individual and Official Capacity, Defendant: James L. Hallman, LEAD ATTORNEY, New York City Law Department, Office of The Corporation Counsel, New York, NY.

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HON. WILLIAM F. KUNTZ, II, United States District Judge.

This action arises out of Plaintiff's allegedly wrongful termination from Public School 117 (" P.S. 117" ) in 2011. At the time the Amended Complaint was filed, Plaintiff Lillie Leon was an 80-year-old tenured teacher. Plaintiff alleged that Defendants, New York City Department of Education (" DOE" ), and three former and current school officials, violated a number of federal, state, and municipal laws by discriminating against her on the basis of her age and disabilities. Defendants DOE and Paula Cunningham[1] now move to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint.

Plaintiff has already litigated the cause of her 2011 termination from P.S. 117 in State Court proceedings (the " State Proceedings" ). The State Proceedings concluded that Plaintiff was dismissed for insubordination and neglect of her duties, not because of unlawful discrimination. Plaintiff's claims, as they relate to her 2011 termination, are collaterally estopped from relitigation in this Court. Furthermore, Plaintiff's First Amendment and pre-2010 discrimination claims fail as matter of law. Finally, this Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's municipal code and state-law tort claims in the absence of a surviving federal cause of action. Accordingly, Defendants' motion to dismiss is granted in its entirety.

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I. Factual and Procedural Background

The following facts are taken from the Amended Complaint (Dkt. 39 (" Compl." )), These facts are not findings of fact by the Court, but rather are assumed to be true for the purpose of deciding this motion and are construed in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, the non-moving party. See Patane v. Clark, 508 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 2007). The Court also takes judicial notice of court documents relating to Plaintiff's prior state and federal court actions in order to describe the procedural posture of this case. See Swiatkowski v. Citibank, 745 F.Supp.2d 150, 156 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (Bianco, J.).

A. Plaintiff's Pre-2010 Allegations

At the time the Amended Complaint (" Compl." ) was filed, Plaintiff was 80 years old and, at all relevant times, she was employed by the DOE at P.S. 117. (Compl. ¶ 6). Plaintiff had been employed by the DOE since 1978. ( Id. at ¶ 16). Plaintiff suffered from severe arthritis in her knees that limited her ability to walk, as well as allergies that limited her ability to breathe in cold climates. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 87-88). Plaintiff provided Defendants medical documentation in May and June 2008 concerning her disabilities. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 38, 40).

Plaintiff previously sued the New York City Board of Education in June 2003, alleging that the DOE violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (" ADEA" ) by treating younger employees more favorably. ( Id. at ¶ 21). That suit settled in Plaintiff's favor in July 2006. ( Id. at ¶ 23), Plaintiff now alleges that Defendants began discriminating and retaliating against her because she filed the federal lawsuit. ( Id. at ¶ 22).

According to Plaintiff, Defendants began a " campaign to force Plaintiff to retire" during the pendency of the lawsuit and beyond the settlement. (Dkt. 47, (Plaintiff's Memorandum in Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss (" Pl.'s Br." )) at 7).[2] This campaign included inquires as to when Plaintiff would retire in 2005 and 2008, (Compl. ¶ ¶ 27, 41); requests that Plaintiff sign a statement indicating her intended date of retirement, ( id. at ¶ 28); the use of profanities and false accusations against Plaintiff, ( id. at ¶ 31); and " a continuous pattern of severe harassment, hostile working environment, retaliation, humiliation, and intimidation." ( Id. at ¶ 29).

Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that she was denied her first choice teaching assignments for the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years, even though her seniority should have given her priority. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 34, 47, 66-67). Furthermore, Plaintiff alleges that unfounded disciplinary letters were placed in bad faith into her personnel file in April and May 2008, in an effort to have Plaintiff terminated. (Compl. ¶ 34). Plaintiff claims that in response to her complaints about the disciplinary letters, she was given an unsatisfactory " U" --for the first time in career--in her 2007-08 Annual Performance Evaluation. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 35-37). Plaintiff alleges that she was required to write out long lesson plans in September 2008, a task not required of tenured or younger teachers. ( Id. at ¶ 43).

Plaintiff alleges that in October 2008, Defendants placed two " known severely troublesome students" into her class as part of the alleged campaign to force her into retirement. ( Id. at ¶ 46). Plaintiff alleges that later in the 2008-09 school year, she was not provided proper testing materials, ( id. at ¶ 49), a letter of dedication to her students was omitted from a

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Moving-Up Ceremony program, and her class was excluded from a field trip to Barnes & Noble. ( Id. at ¶ 51). On March 17, 2009, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination against the school with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ). ( Id. at ¶ 50). Plaintiff also alleges that similar conduct occurred during the 2009-10 school year whereby her class was excluded from a playground equipment ribbon ceremony and had a field trip canceled, ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 52, 55).

B. The 2010-11 School Year

Plaintiff brought her initial complaint in this action on June 15, 2010, alleging the events discussed above. (Dkt. 1). In 2011, Plaintiff filed the Amended Complaint alleging that she was subject to further discrimination by the Defendants during the 2010-11 school year. The Amended Complaint alleged that " Defendants intensified their retaliation and discrimination of Plaintiff in order to force her to retire or to terminate her" during the 2010-11 school year. (Pl.'s Br. at 3); (Compl. ¶ 56). Plaintiff's allegations of discrimination during that school year began with her assignment to teach twenty-five Kindergarten students in a classroom without an in-class bathroom (" Room 113" ). (Compl. ¶ 57). This required Plaintiff to " bathroom" [3] her students. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 57, 59). Plaintiff also alleged that Room 113 lacked age-appropriate furniture. ( Id. at ¶ 63). In Fall 2010, Plaintiff contacted the parents of her students and raised accusations that the classroom was filthy, lacked an attached bathroom, and lacked age-appropriate furniture. ( Id. at ¶ 64).

In response to Plaintiff's conduct, including her refusal to accept any of the alternative teaching assignments offered in lieu of teaching Kindergarten in Room 113, Defendants brought New York Educ. Law § 3020-a charges against Plaintiff citing eight " specifications," or charges of misconduct, arising out of the events of the 2010-11 school year. (Dkt. 48-1 (Decl. of Shakera Khandakar Exhibit A, Opinion and Award in New York City Dep't of Ed. v. Leon, SED File No. 17, 318 (July 15, 2011)) (" Ex. A" ) at 3-4).[4] Plaintiff alleges that these proceedings were initiated by Defendants as part of their continued attempts to " retaliate, discriminate, harass and intimidate Plaintiff." (Pl.'s Br. at 4 (citing Compl., ¶ 76)).

C. The 3020-a Proceeding

On July 15, 2011 the Hearing Officer in the 3020-a proceeding issued the final Opinion and Award. (Ex. A at 1). After three days of evidentiary hearings, the record was closed, and all events up to May 15, 2011 were considered. ( Id. at 2). According to the Opinion, " [b]oth parties were counsel and had a full and fair opportunity to present evidence and argument, to engage in the examination and cross-examination of witnesses, and otherwise to support their respective positions." ( Id. at 2).

The 3020-a proceedings charged Plaintiff with " insubordination, neglect of duty, [and] conduct unbecoming her position[.]"

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( Id. at 3). The eight " specifications" against Plaintiff included:

" Specification 3: Beginning on or about September 13-15, 2010, [Plaintiff] refused to 'bathroom' the students in her assigned Kindergarten class 113, as directed.
Specification 4: On or about September 12, 2010, [Plaintiff] contacted parents of kindergarten class 113, without authorization from the Principal, regarding [Plaintiff's] claims against the school and told them in sum and substance that classroom 113 was:
1. Filthy
2. Without a bathroom
3. Unsuitable for children
4. With furniture that was not age appropriate.
Specification 5: Beginning on or about September 13, 2010, [Plaintiff] informed parents around dismissal time, in sum and substance, that:
1. I will not take your children to the bathroom.
2. I am not a babysitter.
Specification 6: Beginning on or about September 20, 2010, [Plaintiff] refused the Principal's directive that [Plaintiff] teach newly assigned kindergarten class 133.
Specification 7: On or about November 22, 2010, [Plaintiff] refused the Principal's directive that [Plaintiff] conduct a tutoring teaching assignment called " Circular 6" in room 358.
Specification 8: [Plaintiff] failed to report to her designated assignment on or about September 20, 2010 through March 11, 2011, as directed."

(Ex. A at 3-4).

The Hearing Officer ultimately concluded that there was just cause for Plaintiff's termination as she was insubordinate, neglected her duties, was unfit to perform her obligations, violated by-laws, rules, or regulations of the Chancellor, engaged in conduct unbecoming a ...

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