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Guttilla v. City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

February 3, 2015

CITY OF NEW YORK, et al., Defendants.


J. PAUL OETKEN, District Judge.

Lisa Guttilla, proceeding pro se, alleges that various parties violated her rights under federal and state law when her job as a tenured teacher in the New York City school system was terminated after accusations emerged that she had had inappropriate sexual contact with a student. Guttilla seeks monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief. Before the Court are four motions to dismiss the complaint. For the reasons that follow, the motions are granted and the case is dismissed.

I. Background[1]

In the fall of 2009, Lisa Guttilla was employed full-time as a health and physical education teacher at James Madison High School in Brooklyn (Dkt. No. 1 ("Compl.") ¶ 18 & Ex. 1), and part-time as the girls' varsity volleyball coach at Poly Prep Country Day School ("Poly Prep"), a private school also in Brooklyn ( id. ¶¶ 18, 31). She had been a tenured teacher in the New York City school system for 17 years. ( Id. ¶ 18.)

On January 21, 2010, allegations emerged that Guttilla had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with a member of the Poly Prep girls' varsity volleyball team (the "Student").[2] ( Id. ¶ 31 & Ex. 1 at 2.) Guttilla was arrested and criminally charged with three counts of sexual abuse in the third degree and one count of endangering the welfare of a child. ( Id. ¶¶ 27, 31 & Ex. 2 at 5-7.) The criminal complaint stated that Guttilla "did kiss [the Student] on the lips, touch [the Student's] breast and buttocks, and have [the Student] touch [Guttilla's] breast and buttocks" without the Student's consent. ( Id. Ex. 2, at 6-7.) Guttilla maintained, and maintains today, that these allegations are false. ( Id. ¶ 34.)

During the pendency of the criminal proceedings, the New York City Department of Education ("Department") also took action. It instituted proceedings against Guttilla pursuant to New York Education Law § 3020-a and the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") between the Department and Guttilla's labor union, the United Federation of Teachers ("UFT"). ( Id. ¶ 32 & Ex. 2 at 2.) Pursuant to the CBA, Guttilla may be temporarily removed from payroll with a finding of probable cause that she committed "serious misconduct." ( Id. Ex. 2 at 2-3.) "Serious misconduct" is defined to include "any crime involving... sexual abuse of a minor or student." ( Id. Ex. 2 at 2.) The Department may then seek to permanently terminate Guttilla's employment by holding a § 3020-a hearing to determine whether she is in fact guilty of the charges. ( See id. Ex. 4 at 9, 30 & Ex. 5.)

On March 18, 2010, Guttilla was subject to a probable cause hearing before arbitrator Martin Scheinman. ( Id. Ex. 3.) She was represented by Defendant Steven Friedman, a staff attorney for the New York State United Teachers ("NYSUT"), "the legal arm of [UFT]." ( Id. ¶¶ 23-24, 34, 40 & Ex. 3.)[3] At the hearing, the Department argued that under the terms of the CBA, the criminal charge against Guttilla established probable cause that she had sexually assaulted a student. ( Id. ¶ 38 & Ex. 3 at 6-7.) Friedman argued on behalf of Guttilla that the criminal complaint was not sufficient, and that, under the terms of the CBA, the Department was required to produce testimony of a Department investigator, along with signed statements by the victim or witnesses. ( Id. ¶¶ 39-40 & Ex. 3 at 8-9.)

Scheinman rejected Friedman's argument. ( Id. ¶ 39 & Ex. 2 at 11-13.) He noted that under the CBA, a "rebuttable presumption" of probable cause that sexual misconduct was committed exists where "the Special Commissioner of Investigations (SCI') substantiates allegations of sexual misconduct[, ] or a tenured pedagogue has been charged with criminal conduct based on act(s) of sexual misconduct." ( Id. ¶ 39 & Ex. 2 at 11-12.) He interpreted the CBA as requiring substantiation by an investigator only where the Department relied on the former condition; here, the latter condition had been met. ( Id. ¶ 39 & Ex. 2 at 11-13.) Accordingly, Scheinman held that the criminal charge against Guttilla created a presumption of probable cause, which presumption Guttilla had failed to rebut at the hearing. ( Id. ¶ 39 & Ex. 2 at 13.) Consistent with this ruling, Guttilla was suspended from Department payroll. ( Id . ¶ ¶ 39-40 & Ex. 2 at 13.)

Fifteen months later, the criminal charges against Guttilla were dismissed, and she was returned to payroll.[4] ( Id. ¶¶ 33, 40.) Soon thereafter, Defendant Theresa Europe, Director of the Administrative Trials Unit of the Department Office of Legal Services, requested an investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations. ( Id. ¶ 35 & Ex. 1.) Jeffrey Anderson conducted the investigation, and the Department sent his findings to Department Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who is also a defendant in this action. ( Id. Ex. 1.) Anderson reported that Department investigators had interviewed the Student's mother and the NYPD detective who had spoken with the Student in connection with the criminal charges. ( Id. ) Anderson also reviewed the Student's cell phone records, which showed over nine thousand text messages and three hundred calls between the Student's and Guttilla's cellular phones between December 1, 2009, and January 20, 2010. ( Id. ) Anderson concluded that the allegations were substantiated: "Guttilla... had inappropriate sexual contact with a 14-year-old female student... enrolled at [Poly Prep]." ( Id. )

On the basis of Anderson's investigation, Guttilla was subject to a second probable cause hearing on June 18, 2012, again before Scheinman and at which she was again represented by Friedman. ( Id. ¶ 41-42 & Ex. 4.) Anderson was present and summarized his investigation. ( Id. ) Friedman objected that Anderson's report was "based not on single hearsay, but on triple hearsay.... We don't have a witness. We don't have [the Student]. We have nothing." ( Id. Ex. 4 at 8.) Scheinman rejected this argument, finding probable cause that Guttilla had committed sexual misconduct, and suspended her from payroll. ( Id. ¶ 41.)

Arbitrator Eleanor Glanstein was assigned to conduct a subsequent § 3020-a hearing. ( Id. ¶ 42 & Ex. 4 at 9, 30.) This hearing never took place. Instead, on June 29, 2012, Guttilla was "forced" and "harassed" to sign a stipulation of settlement ("Stipulation"). ( Id. ¶¶ 43-44 & Ex. 5.) In the Stipulation, Guttilla agreed to resign her tenure teaching position and to "knowingly waive [her] right to make any legal or equitable claims or to initiate legal or administrative proceedings of any kind against [the Department] or against [its] employees, relating to or arising out of these proceedings, except to enforce this Stipulation of Settlement." ( Id. Ex. 5 ¶ 4.) Guttilla also represented that she had "entered into this agreement freely, knowingly and openly, without coercion or duress and that she has voluntarily waived all statutory, contractual or constitutional rights that she may have held in this matter for a hearing in accordance with Education Law § 3020-a." ( Id. ¶ 6)

Guttilla now alleges that various people violated her rights under federal and state law in connection with the termination of her job. She sues the City of New York and four employees of the Department of Education: Walcott and Europe, mentioned above, as well as Joseph Gogliormella and Jodi Cohen, Principal and Assistant Principal, respectively, of James Madison High School (collectively, the "Department Defendants").[5] She also asserts claims against three union officials: Friedman, mentioned above; UFT President Michael Mulgrew; and Claude Hersh, Assistant General Counsel for the NYSUT (collectively, the "Union Defendants").[6] Finally, Guttilla sues David Harman, Headmaster of Poly Prep. Before the Court are four motions to dismiss the complaint. (Dkt. Nos. 16 (Hersh & Friedman motion), 22 (Harman motion), 24 (Mulgrew motion), 32 (Department Defendants' motion).)[7]

II. Legal Standards

On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court must "accept all allegations in the complaint as true and draw all inferences in the non-moving party's favor." LaFaro v. N.Y. Cardiothoracic Grp., PLLC, 570 F.3d 471, 475 (2d Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). "This standard is not akin to a probability requirement, but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Vaughn v. Air Line Pilots Ass'n, Int'l, 604 F.3d 703, 709 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotation marks omitted). In determining whether a plaintiff has pleaded facts sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss, a court will not consider mere conclusory allegations that lack a factual basis. Hayden v. Paterson, 594 F.3d 150, 160-61 (2d Cir. 2010). A plaintiff's complaint "must at a minimum assert nonconclusory factual matter sufficient to nudge its claims across the line from conceivable to plausible to proceed." EEOC v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 768 F.3d 247, 254 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 680) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted).

Guttilla alleges various violations of the civil rights statutes. "As the Second Circuit has repeatedly held, complaints relying on the civil rights statutes are insufficient unless they contain some specific allegations of fact indicating a deprivation of rights, instead of a litany of general conclusions that shock but have no meaning.'" Bender v. City of New York, No. 09 Civ. 3286 (BSJ), 2011 WL 4344203, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 14, 2011) (quoting Barr v. Abrams, 801 F.2d 358, 363 (2d Cir. 1987)).

In assessing the sufficiency of the complaint, a court may consider "any written instrument attached to it as an exhibit, materials incorporated in it by reference, and documents that, although not incorporated by reference, are integral to the complaint." Sira v. Morton, 380 F.3d 57, 67 (2d Cir. 2004) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). "Integral" documents are those "either in plaintiffs' possession or of which plaintiffs had knowledge and relied on in bringing suit." Chambers v. Time Warner, Inc., 282 F.3d 147, 153 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting Brass v. Am. Film Techs., Inc., 987 F.2d 142, 150 (2d Cir. 1993)). In order for a document to be "integral, " however, a plaintiff must actually have relied on its terms and effect in drafting the complaint; mere possession or notice is not enough. Id.

Finally, Guttilla's pro se complaint is subject to more lenient standards than a complaint filed by a represented party. "A document filed pro se is to be liberally construed, and a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citation and internal ...

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