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Hall v. North Bellmore School District

United States District Court, E.D. New York

September 26, 2014

DANIA HALL, Plaintiff,

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Dania Hall, Plaintiff: Kevin T. Grennan, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of Kevin T. Grennan, PLLC, Garden City, NY.

For North Bellmore School District, Defendant: Rondiene Erin Novitz, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gary Edward Dvoskin, Keith V. Tola, Cruser, Mitchell & Novitz, LLP, Melville, NY.

For Superintendent Dominic Mucci, Principal Marilyn Hirschfield, Principal Michael Wolk, North Bellmore Board of Education, Nina Lanci, Mary Oporto, Joseph Perrone, Howard G. Pollitt, Irma F. Wilk, Defendants: Rondiene Erin Novitz, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gary Edward Dvoskin, Cruser, Mitchell & Novitz, LLP, Melville, NY.

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PAMELA K. CHEN, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Dania Hall, a former music teacher for the elementary school district of North Bellmore (the " School District" ), claims that she was denied tenure, and then terminated, based on her age and sex, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (the " ADEA" ), § 4(a), 29 U.S.C. § 623(a), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ), § 703(a), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).[1] At the outset, the Court observes that the " kitchen sink" style of briefing by the parties--which includes a 193-paragraph Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts, a 148-paragraph counterstatement of facts, and over 4,000 pages of exhibits--is not only wildly disproportionate to the issues presented in this case, but, if anything, belies its summary judgment-worthy nature. Indeed, the Court concludes that there are genuine disputes as to material facts, and, thus, denies Defendants' summary judgment motion.

I. Background[2]

The School District consists of six different elementary schools: Newbridge Road, Park Avenue, Saw Mill Road, Jacob Gunther, John G. Dinkelmeyer, and Martin Avenue. (Defs. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 6, 13; Dkt. Nos. 91-1-91-63 (" Defs. Exs." ), Ex. D, at 62:21-64:13.) From 1997 to 2004, the Superintendent of the School District[3] was Dr.

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James Parla (" Superintendent Parla" ); and, from 2004 onward, at the time of Plaintiff's tenure denial and termination, the Superintendent was Dominic Mucci (" Superintendent Mucci" ). (Defs. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 28, 30.) During that same period, the principals for the Newbridge Road and Park Avenue schools were Marilyn Hirschfield (" Principal Hirschfield" ) and Michael Wolk (" Principal Wolk" ), respectively. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 22, 24.)[4]

A. Plaintiff's Probationary Employment and Credentials

In August 2002, at the age of 56, Plaintiff was hired by the School District, specifically, Superintendent Parla, as a probationary music teacher, meaning that she would be eligible for tenure in three academic years. (Defs. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 3-4; Dkt. No. 95, at 71-95 (" Pl. 56.1" ) ¶ ¶ 7-8; see Pl. Ex. 17, at 4 (providing that teachers for the School District are " probationary and without tenure" in their " first three (3) years" ).)[5] Prior to being denied tenure and terminated, Plaintiff's credentials included (i) a Master of Science degree in music education, which she earned in February 2003; and (ii) several music-related certifications, including, since February 2005, a permanent music teaching certification from New York State. (Defs. 56.1 ¶ 5; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 3; Pl. Ex. 42; Pl. Ex. 68; Pl. Ex. 69.) Between 1999 and 2002,[6] Plaintiff had prior music teaching experience, albeit in non-permanent positions, with five other school districts. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 4-6.)

During her time with the School District, Plaintiff taught classes in the violin, viola, cello, and bass at all six of the schools, and conducted the district-wide string orchestra. (Defs. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 6, 8-11; Defs. Ex. D, at 99:11-103:5.) The orchestra rehearsed at the Saw Mill Road school, and performed six daytime concerts and two evening concerts throughout the academic year. ( Ibid.)

B. Complaints About Plaintiff's Teaching

Principal Hirschfield, but none of the other school principals, claims to have received two complaints about Plaintiff's teaching during her second academic year (2003/2004) and one complaint during her third academic year (2004/2005). (Defs. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 92, 99; Defs. Ex. G, at 108:14-109:2, 131:25-132:8.) Yet, Principal Hirschfield made no effort to investigate any of these complaints.

According to Principal Hirschfield, the first complaint came in March 2004 from the mother of a special education student named Nicole. (Defs. Ex. G, at 109:3-110:20.)[7] Nicole's mother placed a telephone call to Principal Hirschfield to complain

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that Plaintiff had told Nicole that she was " clumsy" for breaking her violin, that Nicole stopped taking violin lessons from Plaintiff, and that Plaintiff nonetheless commented on Nicole's report card that she should " review the rules for care of the violin." ( Id. at 109:3-110:20, 111:22-112:6, 115:11-115:19; Defs. Ex. V.) Principal Hirschfield admitted that she " only spoke to [Nicole's mother] that one time" about the complaint, and did not receive anything in writing from the mother or otherwise document the conversation that they had in support of the complaint. (Defs. Ex. G, at 110:21-111:21, 115:1-115:2, 120:11-120:16.) Afterward, Principal Hirschfield reported the complaint to Superintendent Parla, who personally felt that " [i]t was . . . nothing that . . . really raised a major concern." (Pl. Ex. 4, at 25:25-26:1.) Principal Hirschfield, however, in discussing her concerns about the complaint with Superintendent Parla, described Plaintiff as " eccentric." ( Id. at 26:4.)

Principal Hirschfield received the second complaint in June 2004, in the form of a one-page handwritten letter from the mother of a student named " Shoshi." (Defs. Ex. G, at 128:19-128:25; Defs. Ex. W.) In the letter, Shoshi's mother complained that Plaintiff had told Shoshi, in front of the entire class, that " she was not good enough" to perform a duet on the violin. ( Ibid.) Principal Hirschfield admitted that she never spoke to Shoshi's mother, and merely relied on the letter in substantiating the complaint. (Defs. Ex. G, at 128:24-129:3.)

Principal Hirschfield also received the third complaint by way of a letter, in January 2005. ( Id. at 133:20-133:24; Defs. Ex. BB.) In the letter, the mother of a student named " Danielle" complained that her daughter was no longer interested in playing the violin, after Plaintiff told Danielle that " you really weren't that good." (Defs. Ex. G, at 132:9-132:18; Defs. Ex. BB.) Once again, Principal Hirschfield admitted that she never spoke to Danielle's mother, and merely relied on the letter in substantiating the complaint. (Defs. Ex. G, at 141:4-141:6, 256:10-256:14.) Indeed, with respect to all three parental complaints, Plaintiff argues that Principal Hirschfield made no effort to confirm the bases for these complaints with the students themselves. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 94-96.)

C. Observations and Annual Evaluations of Plaintiff

One of the school principals' responsibilities was to complete observations and annual evaluations of teachers, as directed by the Superintendent. (Defs. 56.1 ¶ 14; Defs. Ex. E, at 226:8-230:14.) According to Principals Anderson and Bennett, as a matter of policy, every probationary teacher was entitled to three observations and one annual evaluation at a minimum. (Defs. Ex. E, at 227:23-230:14; Defs. Ex. F, at 170:6-170:12.) Principal Anderson also testified that, as far as he could remember, no probationary teachers from 2000 to 2005 received fewer than the minimum number of observations and annual evaluations, and that such procedural irregularities, if any, " would grossly disadvantage that particular instructor in terms of receiving adequate administrative support and feedback, guidance, [and] mentoring." (Defs. Ex. E, at 230:17-237:4.) Similarly, though slightly less confident than her colleague, Principal Bennett testified that every probationary teacher that she knew of received at least one observation each year. (Defs. Ex. F, at 168:10-169:20.)

Plaintiff, however, points to procedural irregularities with respect to her employment: there were no observations of her during her first two academic years (2002/2003, 2003/2004), and no annual evaluation of her during her first academic

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year (2002/2003). (Pl. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 29, 32; see Defs. Exs. X-AA (four observations for 2004/2005, all of which were completed in February 2005); Defs. Exs. T-U (two annual evaluations for 2003/2004).) By contrast, a much younger, male music teacher, who later made tenure, infra, received at least two observations and one annual evaluation for 2002/2003, and three observations and one annual evaluation for 2003/2004. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 83; Defs. Ex. KK.)

Furthermore, the only negative observation and annual evaluation of Plaintiff were by Principal Hirschfield, based on the three parental complaints that the school principal had fielded but did nothing to investigate. In a 2003/2004 annual evaluation, Principal Hirschfield wrote:

On two occasions [Plaintiff] did not use her best judgment when communicating with students and their parents. It would be suggested that she consider the feelings of the child when determining their potential talent and gently inform a child if he/she doesn't meet [Plaintiff's] criteria. If a child breaks an instrument, ...

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