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Graham v. Elmira City School District

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 25, 2015



MICHAEL A. TELESCA, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Constance Graham ("Plaintiff"), represented by counsel, instituted the present action against the Elmira City School District ("the District") and the Elmira City School District, Board of Education ("the Board") alleging employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, § 701 et seq., 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq. This Decision and Order addresses the motion filed by the District and the Board (collectively, "Defendants") seeking summary judgment.

II. Background

A. Factual Summary

In 2006, Plaintiff was recruited by District Superintendent Raymond Bryant ("Supt. Bryant") to apply for the principalship position at Diven Elementary School ("Diven"). At the August 15 2007, Board meeting Supt. Bryant recommended that she be hired as principal of Diven. Board members Timothy Blandford, Michael Crimmins, Lynn Grottenthaler, Daniel Hurley, Rodney Strange, Ethel Stroman, Mary Beth Turner, and Anthony Fisher, Jr., voted unanimously (with one Board member absent and not voting) to approve Plaintiff's appointment. See Affidavit of Mary Beth Turner ("Turner Aff."), ¶ 4 & Exhibit ("Ex.") A, p. 111 (Dkt #38-5). Plaintiff understood that her position was probationary until such time as a decision was made about tenure. Graham Tr. 17:9-17.[1]

According to Director of Human Resources Robert Van Keuren ("Van Keuren"), Diven was affected by "generational poverty" and "a somewhat difficult staff led by a very strong [teachers'] union leader in that building." Van Keuren 7:11-17; id. 8:3-6. Van Keuren recalled hearing complaints about Plaintiff from Diven's teachers' union which "generically" stemmed from Plaintiff "trying to reestablish administrative control of the building[.]" Id . 9:2-11, 34:3-21. According to Plaintiff, some the teachers felt that a male principal was needed because of the discipline problem at Diven, id. 53:4-22, and they were opposed to her request to review their lesson plans. Id . 54:1-55:9. From the beginning, Plaintiff said she had an "antagonistic relationship" with Douglas Martin ("Martin"), the president of the teachers' union. Id . 55:20-56:16. Plaintiff felt there was "some kind of collusion" between Martin and certain "veteran" teachers at Diven. Id . Over time, "[she] really got the sense that there was active undermining of [her] position as the administrative leader of the building with the teachers." Id . 57:15-18. Though Martin never made racist comments directly to Plaintiff, she "was made aware that he was talking with one of the veteran teachers in the building, [Chris] Troncone, " who "felt uncomfortable working with, as [Troncone] put it, colored people." Id . 57:19-58:10. Plaintiff was not aware of any other members of the teachers' union making racist comments. Id . 80:18-23. Plaintiff testified that Supt. Bryant, Asst. Supt. Hochreiter, and Van Keuren did not make any racist comments or reference her race at any time. See id. 79:1-80:9, 122:1-8.

Board members and District administrators recounted hearing complaints from a number of parents with children at Diven that Plaintiff was a poor communicator and not engaged with staff, students, and the community. For instance, Board member Edith Stroman ("Stroman") testified that she consistently heard complaints from "a group of parents [who] had gotten together [and] decided they did not want her [at Diven] as a principal" because they did not like Plaintiff's leadership style. Id . 39:9-17. Stroman's understanding of the parents' complaints was that Plaintiff "stayed in her office. That she never came out. No one ever saw her. She didn't attend to their needs, the staff[s' needs]." Id . 39:22-40:21. Stroman heard complaints that Plaintiff was aloof and did not interact well with the children. See also Turner Aff., ¶¶ 6-11 (Dkt #38-5).

Supt. Bryant testified receiving complaints from members of the Diven parents' group that Plaintiff was "hard to get ahold of" and "wasn't responsive to their inquiries[.]" Bryant 65:11-15. These parents complained that Plaintiff, unlike other administrators from Diven, would not attend the parents' group meetings to discuss issues with them. Id . 65:16-22. Teachers complained to him that Plaintiff spent an "inordinate amount of time" in her office and that as of three months after she had begun as principal, she had not held a faculty meeting or otherwise gone around and introduced herself to all the staff. Id . 78:24-79:16. Supt. Bryant opined that some of the complaints from teachers and aides were because Plaintiff was conducting business at Diven differently than her predecessors. Id . 64:22-65:2. Supt. Bryant agreed that one area in which she could improve was communications with staff. While Plaintiff was principal, fourteen staff members asked for transfers out of Diven due to her leadership style; this was a larger number than usual of transfer requests. Id . 66:21-67:2, 82:5-17.

Plaintiff testified that throughout the school year, her direct supervisor, Asst. Supt. Hochreiter, told her that he felt she needed to spend more time being involved with parents and the community as "there was a need particularly in [Diven] to have parents coming in." Graham 49:11-15.

On June 17, 2008, Plaintiff was summoned, along with her union representative, to a meeting with Supt. Bryant, Asst. Supt. Hochreiter, and Van Keuren ("the District Administrators") where Plaintiff was informed her she was to be transferred out of her position as principal. Plaintiff said that the District Administrators' reason for the transfer "appeared to be around the issues with the parents which was something that they were aware of throughout the year[.]" Graham 89:4-21. According to Plaintiff, the District administrators "were aware of parents who were meeting with Mr. Wood [the former Board member] who was part of that other e-mail to say how can we get rid of her[.]" Id . 66:9-13. According to Plaintiff, Asst. Supt. Hochreiter's information concerning parent dissatisfaction with Plaintiff's performance was not from a survey that had been sent to parents, as the results were not in at that point, but "was directly coming from the parent group that was in the building" who were meeting with Wood "to figure out a way of ousting [her]." Id . 90:9-23. Plaintiff explained that the primary reason given [by Asst. Supt. Hochreiter] [was] the dissent or dissension by the parents[.]" Id . 94:1-5. There were no other reasons given to her for wanting to transfer her out the principalship position. Id . 94:6-10.

Supt. Bryant testified that he made the decision to remove Plaintiff because he "[c]ouldn't protect her" from several Board members whom he said were "out to get her." Bryant 103:13-104:8. He elaborated as follows:

It was clear to me that there was nothing that Dr. Graham could do at Diven that would back off some people who wanted her out. And it was creating, you know, as long as there were teachers who still thought there was hope that if they complained to certain board members she would be removed, the Diven community would never settle.... So I felt that my only option for the school's sake... and for Dr. Graham was to try and find an alternative for her within the district.

Bryant 24:15-25:2. Supt. Bryant testified that due to the "outside influences... going in to [Diven]" from Board members and parents, he "did not think [Plaintiff] in that situation could function." Bryant 105:12-22. The decision to remove her had nothing to do with her performance, id. 25:3-6, which was "[t]ypical of a first year principal." Id . 25:9; see also id. 28:14-15.

Plaintiff testified that, at the meeting, she did not voice any concerns that race was involved in the decision to remove her "because [the District administrators] were aware of a lot of the reasons behind this particular kind of vitriol that was coming up...." Graham 96:22-97:22. Plaintiff recalled Van Keuren being "apologetic" and recognizing that Diven was a "very challenging school" due to "the negative kind of interactions which hadn't just started with [Plaintiff] coming [to Diven, ] definitely." Plaintiff indicated that this negativity "was there before [she] got there with parents and the teachers and the push back that they were getting because teachers feeling that too much was being put on them... and just a handful of vocal parents" who had been causing "turmoil" at Diven for a while. Id.

Initially, she was to be transferred to the position of assistant principal, which she rejected. She eventually agreed to being transferred to the position of deputy director of human resources, reporting to Van Keuren. Graham 98:1-99:23. At the July 16, 2008 Board meeting, Supt. Bryant presented a personnel packet recommending, among other things, that Plaintiff be appointed to the position of deputy director of human resources.[2] Bryant 113:19-114:8. The Board voted 5-4 to ...

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