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Sands v. New Paltz Central School District

United States District Court, N.D. New York

September 3, 2014

STACEY SANDS, Plaintiff,

Sussman, Watkins Law Firm, MICHAEL H. SUSSMAN, ESQ., Goshen, NY, for the Plaintiff.

Drake, Loeb Law Firm, ADAM L. RODD, ESQ., New Windsor, NY, for the Defendants.


GARY L. SHARPE, Chief District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Stacey Sands commenced this action against defendants New Paltz Central School District, Maria Rice, and Barbara Clinton, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that defendants discriminated against her on the basis of race, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. ( See generally Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) Pending before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 22.) For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted.

II. Background[1]

In July 2008, Sands, an African-American female, applied for one of two open positions as a guidance counselor in the New Paltz Central School District. (Defs.' Statement of Material Facts (SMF) ¶¶ 1-2, 12-13, Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 44.) As part of the application process, Sands underwent two interviews with members of the school and district administration; both interviews were attended by Clinton, the Principal of New Paltz High School, as well as guidance counselors Kathryn Flanagan and Maryann Antonelle. ( Id. ¶¶ 4, 18-19.) At the close of the interview process, both Clinton and Rice, the superintendent of the district, recommended to the district's board of education that they hire Sands for one of the open guidance counselor positions. ( Id. ¶¶ 3, 23; Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 16 at 2.) Ultimately, on August 20, 2008, Sands was hired, as the board approved a probationary appointment of her to the position of guidance counselor, with her probationary status lasting three years from her date of hire, until August 31, 2011. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 24.)

Over the course of Sands' probationary employment, she periodically received performance evaluations. ( Id. ¶ 28.) All of Sands' evaluations through January 2011 indicated that her performance was "satisfactory, " although they did identify areas in which she needed improvement. ( Id. ¶¶ 29-30; Dkt. No. 22, Attachs. 17-24.) These evaluations were all composed by either Clinton or Assistant Superintendent Connie Hayes. (Dkt. No. 22, Attachs. 17-24.)

Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, Sands' third year of probationary employment, Clinton noticed deficiencies in Sands' job performance. (Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 4 ¶ 13.) Clinton issued a performance evaluation in March 2011, which documented her concerns about Sands' performance. (Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 25.) This evaluation was the first to officially denominate Sands' performance as "unsatisfactory." ( Id. at 3.) Specifically, Clinton noted several areas of deficiency, including: a lack of initiative on Sands' part; "passive rather than pro-active" interactions with students, parents, and administrators; lack of on-going communication with school administration; not giving adequate notice of "[c]hanges in situations" including Sands' failure to follow through on particular initiatives; and insufficient "collaboration with all members of the [guidance] department." ( Id. ) Clinton theorized that the decline in Sands' performance stemmed from the fact that Antonelle, another of the guidance counselors at the high school, had been out of work for a significant period of time that school year, and that as a result, many of Sands' mistakes started becoming more visible. (Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 4 ¶¶ 13-14.) Sands disputes this reason behind her purported deficiencies, instead claiming that her performance was, in fact, adequate, and that there is no basis to attribute any perceived decline in performance to Antonelle's absence. (Dkt. No. 23 ¶ 6.)

At the close of the 2010-2011 school year, Sands' third year of employment and the first juncture at which she would have been eligible for tenure, Clinton recommended to Rice that Sands' probationary period be extended for one additional year. (Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 2 ¶ 21.) As a result, Sands was not given tenure, and, instead, both she and defendants agreed to extend her probationary status for a fourth year. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 55; Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 32.) In connection with this agreement, Sands was placed on a Teacher Improvement Plan, which noted specific areas to be addressed in the coming year and laid out objectives and plans to improve Sands' performance. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 51; Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 33.) Sands was also assigned a mentor, Stephanie Shoemaker, a colleague in the guidance department, to monitor Sands during her fourth year and assist her in improving her performance. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 52; Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 33.)

During the 2011-2012 school year, Sands' fourth year of employment at the district, issues continued to arise regarding her job performance. (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 56-78.) Although Sands disputes the severity of many of these alleged issues, she admits that during meetings with her mentor, Shoemaker, she was advised of expectations for improving in the area of professional development by, among other things, visiting colleges, and was encouraged by Shoemaker to do so. ( Id. ¶¶ 61-62.) However, during Sands' fourth year, she only went on a single college visit. ( Id. ¶ 63.) In addition, Sands understood that one of her responsibilities as a guidance counselor was to organize field trips for students to visit colleges, but over the course of the 2011-2012 school year, she only organized one trip. ( Id. ¶¶ 68-70; Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 10 at 23-24.)

In January 2012, Sands received her second "unsatisfactory" performance evaluation from Jo-Anne Dobbins, the district's Director of Pupil Personnel Services, who had observed and evaluated Sands' performance. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 79; Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 28.) In her review, Dobbins detailed an incident regarding a student who had failed to show up for a required Regents exam, and noted that as an experienced guidance counselor, Sands should have been aware of the rules and procedures regarding such exams. (Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 28 at 3-4.) Dobbins also noted a separate issue with Sands' monitoring of student absences, and indicated "that this needed to be followed more closely from the onset" in order to avoid "a duplication of efforts." ( Id. at 3.)

In April 2012, Clinton recommended to Rice that Sands not be given tenure at the end of her probationary employment due to her deficient job performance, finding "significant deficits" and thus that Sands did "not meet the district's high quality standards." (Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 30.) Dobbins recommended the same. (Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 31.) In a letter to Sands, Rice indicated that she would not be recommending her for tenure because Sands failed to effectively communicate with others, inadequately addressed academic progress issues of her students, and did not demonstrate a commitment to contributing as a member of the guidance department. (Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 35.) According to Rice, despite being issued a Teacher Improvement Plan noting these deficiencies and being assigned a mentor, Sands did "not show[ ] enough improvement or demonstrate[ ] a consistent quality standard to be recommended for tenure." ( Id. ) At the close of the school year, in June 2012, Rice formally recommended to the board of education that they not confer tenure upon Sands, and the board subsequently voted to deny Sands tenure, effectively terminating her employment at the school. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 92; Dkt. No. 22, Attach. 41.)

Sands commenced this action in July 2012, asserting a cause of action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for race-based discrimination, in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Compl.) Defendants thereafter ...

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