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White v. City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

September 3, 2014

TRICIA WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK; NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION; DENNIS WALCOTT, CHANCELLOR; ELISA BROWN, PRINCIPAL OF P.S. 249; ANA DEJESUS, SIOLEN KELLY HO, ASSISTANT PRINCIPALS, P.S. 249; BUFFIE SIMMONS, COMMUNITY DISTRICT SUPERINTENDENT DISTRICT 17; ALL SUED IN THEIR OFFICIAL INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

EDGARDO RAMOS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Tricia White (the "Plaintiff" or "Mrs. White"), appearing pro se, brings this action against her former employers, supervisors and co-workers: the City of New York (the "City"), the New York City Department of Education (the "BOE"), [1] Dennis Walcott, Elisa Brown, Ana DeJesus and Buffie Simmons (collectively, the "Individual Defendants, " and together with the City and BOE, the "Defendants") in their official and individual capacities. Plaintiff claims that Defendants unlawfully terminated her from her position as a special education teacher in retaliation for speaking out against the school's administration and exposing "special education fraud" there. She further alleges that Defendants discriminated against her due to her pregnancy, harassed her, caused the premature birth of her child, and lodged false accusations of corporal punishment against her, then deprived her of the ability to defend herself against them. Plaintiff asserts that Defendants' false accusations not only contributed to her termination, but also prevented her from obtaining new employment.

Liberally construed, the Complaint asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 for violations of Plaintiff's rights, and conspiracy to violate Plaintiff's rights, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments; an employment discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; New York state law claims for wrongful termination, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, fraud, "verbal harassment, with unjustified threats of future harm, " and defamation; and claims under New York Civil Service Law § 75-b. Compl., Doc. 1. Plaintiff seeks more than two million dollars in damages, punitive damages and costs, a declaratory judgment stating that Defendants violated her rights, and injunctive relief. Id.

Before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Doc. 11. Defendants seek dismissal on the grounds that Plaintiff has failed to: (1) timely file notice for her New York state law claims, which are also time-barred; (2) state a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 or 1985; (3) exhaust her administrative remedies for her Title VII claim; (4) allege municipal liability for her claims against the BOE or its officers in their official capacities; and (5) allege liability against the City, as it is an improper party. See Defs.' Mem. L. Supp. Mot. Dismiss ("Defs.' Mem.") 2, Doc. 12.

For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED and Plaintiff's complaint is dismissed.

I. BACKGROUND

The Court accepts the following allegations as true for purposes of this motion.[2]

A. The Parties

1. Plaintiff

On September 7, 2010, Plaintiff began employment as an untenured special education teacher for Defendant BOE.[3] Compl. ¶¶ 27, 31. She was assigned to work at the Caton School, also known as "P.S. 249, " in Brooklyn, New York. Id. Mrs. White has a license for "Special Education Day"[4] and several certifications within the State of New York that allow her to teach general students and students with disabilities in all grade levels, from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. Id. ¶ 18. Throughout the 2010-2011 academic year, Plaintiff received a rating of "satisfactory" for her lesson observations and performance evaluations. Id. ¶¶ 19, 28. This case arises from allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation that Mrs. White claims she suffered during the 2011-2012 school year.

2. Defendants

Defendant Dennis Walcott ("Chancellor Walcott") is the Chancellor of Defendant BOE. Id. ¶ 21. Plaintiff alleges that Chancellor Walcott worked with the other co-Defendants to "assist in the[ir] misconduct and [lodge] false claims" against her. Id. Defendant Buffie Simmons ("Superintendent Simmons") was, and is, the "Community District Superintendent" for District 17, which includes the Caton School. Id. ¶ 22. Defendant Elisa Brown ("Principal Brown") served as the principal of the Caton School, and Defendants Ana DeJesus ("Assistant Principal DeJesus") and Siolen Kelly Ho ("Assistant Principal Ho") were both assistant principals there. Id. ¶¶ 23-25. Plaintiff alleges that each of the Individual Defendants had responsibility for creating and implementing policies that comply with city, state and federal law. Id. ¶¶ 21-25.

B. Factual Allegations

At the start of the 2011-2012 academic year, Plaintiff was three months pregnant. Id. ¶ 31. Assistant Principal DeJesus told Plaintiff that she should not have a baby while working as an untenured teacher. Id.

In addition to "harassing" her due to her pregnancy, Plaintiff claims that Defendants targeted her for disciplinary action because they wanted to suppress information about their failure to provide appropriate educational services for special needs students at the Caton School. Id. ¶ 37. As a supplement to the lessons provided by special education teachers in public schools, "related service providers" implement Individual Education Programs ("IEPs")- personalized plans for student growth-for special education students. Plaintiff appears to allege that, at the Caton School, such special education service providers-who are employed by outside agencies, not the school itself-are supposed to work with students in person, on an individual basis, and during school hours, as set forth in each student's IEP. At one point, [5] Assistant Principal DeJesus asked Plaintiff to write IEP goals for students who were not receiving services from related service providers. Id. ¶ 29. Specifically, Ms. DeJesus instructed Plaintiff to write "speech codes, " meaning, speech-related education plans, for students who did not receive speech services. Id. "Supervisors" threatened Plaintiff that they would give her an unsatisfactory ("U") rating on her evaluation if she did not comply with this directive, even though Plaintiff believed that it was out of compliance with special education protocol. Id. ¶ 30.

Documents attached to the Complaint[6] indicate that, on Thursday, September 22, 2011, Assistant Principal DeJesus observed an occupational therapist working with a student in Plaintiff's classroom. Assistant Principal DeJesus and Mrs. White discussed the possibility that the therapist would work with that particular student in the classroom at certain times, and Mrs. White apparently agreed to permit such services in the classroom. Assistant Principal DeJesus emphasized to Mrs. White the importance of allowing related service providers to work with students in the classroom, noting "that the child must be able to function in her classroom and can only do so when the services needed for her academic growth are provided where she spends most of her day, in the classroom." Compl. Ex. 2 (Oct. 28, 2011 Ltr.).

On Saturday, September 24, 2011, Mrs. White sent several e-mails (the "September 24, 2011 Emails") to certain related service providers that she believed were not appropriately providing services to her students. Plaintiff claims that these service providers had not been communicating feedback to her, and parents had expressed reservations about their children's progress. Compl. ¶ 32, Ex. 1. Mrs. White copied Assistant Principal DeJesus on the September 24, 2011 Emails, the first of which stated as follows:

[8:23 a.m.]
All service providers MUST FOLLOW each individual student's IEP. If a student [sic] IEP states, "2 twice a week, 30 minutes, SEPARATE LOCATION, " please provide theses [sic] services as is. Students [sic] IEP should not be amended based on personal opinions or judgments. If you have any questions about any student receiving related services and you want to make any changes, please follow the correct protocols to do so.
Mrs. White

Compl. Ex. 1 at 1-3 (emphasis in original). At 8:36 a.m., Assistant Principal DeJesus emailed Mrs. White to ask who the email was for, and instructed Plaintiff to meet with her on Monday, September 26, 2011 "as soon as you get in." Id.; Compl. ¶¶ 33-34. At 2:02 p.m., Mrs. White responded: "I am just doing my job while providing and advocating for my students, based on their needs and what is written on a state legal document. I will definitely speak to you [as soon as possible] on Monday about the matter." Id. at Ex. 1. Minutes later, Mrs. White sent another email to related service providers, again copying Assistant Principal DeJesus, which stated:

[2:13 p.m.]
If you have not provided me with your schedule, please try and do so [as soon as possible] so that I could informed [sic] students [sic] parents. If schedules overlap with other related service providers, please make an extra effort to work out a time that will work for everyone. If a prescription is needed in order to provide services, please put it in writing, so that I could [sic] inform the parents. Also, reader's workshop is a very important instruction time. It is usually during 2nd period, so if possible, please could related services be schedule [sic] around that time:) [sic]. However, based on each student, exceptions could be made.
Mrs. White

Id.

At the meeting on September 26, 2011, Assistant Principal DeJesus directed Mrs. White not to "put stuff' like that in e-mails"-referring to the content of the September 24, 2011 Emails-"because the school could get in trouble." Id. ¶ 34. According to documents attached to the Complaint, on September 26, 2011, Assistant Principal DeJesus also saw Mrs. White rubbing Principal Brown's hair while telling her that Ms. DeJesus displayed favoritism. Id. at Ex. 2 (Oct. 28, 2011 Ltr.). When Ms. DeJesus asked Mrs. White to name the favorites, she responded by laughing and did not answer. Id.

On September 28, 2011, Plaintiff attended a meeting with her union representative, Assistant Principal DeJesus and Principal Brown. At this meeting, Ms. DeJesus asked Plaintiff if she read the page of the teachers' handbook for P.S. 249 which provides, in relevant part, that all e-mails must be preapproved by the principal. Id. Plaintiff stated, "I am not sure." Id. Plaintiff also indicated that she had forwarded the September 24, 2011 Emails to three principals and two CEC[7] representatives, and they did not believe that the content was insubordinate. Id. When asked by Principal Brown if Plaintiff addressed her concerns about the related service providers with Assistant Principal DeJesus before sending the September 24, 2011 Emails, Plaintiff replied that she "[did not] want to bother Ms. DeJesus." Id.

1. The October 28, 2011 Disciplinary Letter

Plaintiff asserts that, in retaliation for sending the September 24, 2011 Emails, Assistant Principal DeJesus placed a letter in her personnel file on October 28, 2011 (the "October 28, 2011 Letter") that described several acts of "insubordination" committed by Plaintiff. Id. ¶ 35; Ex. 2. First, the October 28, 2011 Letter states:

On Thursday, September 22, 2011, I [Assistant Principal DeJesus] entered your classroom at approximately 9:15 [a.m.] and Mrs. Williams, [a student's] occupational therapist[, ] was servicing [the student] in your classroom. We briefly discussed the possibility of servicing [that student] in the classroom at certain times. I stated that this was acceptable and directed the [occupational therapy] provider to provide services within the classroom. We further discussed that related service providers can provide services within the classroom. In addition, I stated that the child must be able to function in her classroom and can only do so when the services needed for her academic growth are provided where she spends most of her day, in the classroom. On Saturday, September 24, 2011 at 8:23 [a.m.], I received an email from you directing all related service providers to conduct all services in a separate location. In addition, you directed all related service providers to follow the student's IEP without my approval.

Id. at Ex. 2. The October 28, 2011 Letter also cites the portion of the P.S. 249 teacher's handbook requiring that all emails be pre-approved by Principal Brown and describes the encounter on September 26, 2011 during which Plaintiff allegedly rubbed Principal Brown's hair. Id. The letter concludes as follows:

[T]he conduct you [Mrs. White] exhibited, namely failing to take my directive of allowing the related service providers to provide the services within the classroom at certain times, writing an email without approval to all related service providers, your inappropriate touching of the principal and your remarks to me constitutes insubordination, dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming a professional educator... You are reminded of your obligation to follow my supervisory directions and address me in a professional manner. Please be advised this incident may lead to further disciplinary action including an unsatisfactory rating and your termination.

Id. at 2.

Plaintiff claims that "the staff at P.S. 249 routinely sent emails without first obtaining approval of the principal, " a fact which Plaintiff pointed out at the time of her disciplinary letter. Id. ¶ 36. Plaintiff believes that she was "singled out" because of her attempt to expose the "lack of proper servicing of special needs children" at the Caton School. Id. ¶¶ 36-37. After this incident, Assistant Principal ...


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