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Colandrea v. Hunter-Tannersville Central School District

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 22, 2017

DARLENE COLANDREA, Plaintiff,
v.
HUNTER-TANNERSVILLE CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

          Lawrence E. Kahn U.S. District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Darlene Colandrea commenced the present action against Defendants Hunter-Tannersville Central School District (“HTCSD”) and Patrick Darfler-Sweeney alleging discrimination and unlawful retaliation in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”), N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq. Dkt. No. 1 (“Complaint”). Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. Nos. 23 (“Motion”), 23-2 (“Defendants' Memorandum”), 23-3 (“Defendants' Statement of Material Facts”); see also Dkt. Nos. 31 (“Opposition”), 32 (“Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts”), 33 (“Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts Response”). For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is denied.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Colandrea has been employed as a teacher by HTCSD since approximately September 1981, and she is fifty-nine years old. Dkt. No. 34 (“Colandrea Affidavit”) ¶¶ 3-4. Colandrea teaches prekindergarten and, until 2014, had uniformly received exemplary performance reviews. Id. ¶¶ 5, 7-8. In 2014, Colandrea became the first teacher in her district to receive the New York State Elementary Classroom Teachers Association (“NYSECTA”) Pre-K Teacher of the Year Award. Id. ¶ 35. Throughout her time at HTCSD, Colandrea participated in various after-school, mentoring, and professional development programs. Id. ¶ 10. She also worked as a summer school teacher and spent ten years as the coordinator of the summer school program. Id. ¶ 39.

         In fall 2013, HTCSD established the Community Rural Opportunities Program (“CROP”), which runs throughout the school year and the summer. Dkt. No. 23-1 (“Lynch Affirmation”) ¶ 20. CROP has two different types of employees: a Site Coordinator, who runs the program, and Activity Leaders, who are supervised by the Site Coordinator. Id. ¶ 22. Colandrea applied to be the Site Coordinator for the 2013-2014 school year, and she was appointed to the position despite objections from Sweeney, who was the District Superintendent until retiring on June 30, 2016. Colandrea Aff. ¶¶ 12, 65. Although Sweeney eventually recommended Colandrea for the position, he did so only under the direction of the Board of Education (the “Board”). Dkt. No. 24-1 (“Sweeney Deposition”) at 52:14-53:8. Until May 2014, Colandrea received excellent evaluations for her work as Site Coordinator during the 2013-2014 school year. Colandrea Aff. ¶ 37.[1]

         On May 10, 2014, while she was Site Coordinator, Colandrea led a field trip to the Bronx Zoo for children in kindergarten through seventh grade. Id. ¶ 13; Lynch Affirm. ¶ 25. Afterward, two of the parents who attended the trip wrote letters complaining about their experience. Colandrea Aff. ¶ 14. They complained that the school buses were too slow, the trip ended late, and the teachers were texting each other. Id. Colandrea responds that the complaints were unreasonable because the bus may not travel faster than fifty-five miles per hour, the trip ended late because the bus made an emergency stop to bring a child to the bathroom, and the teachers were texting each other to keep track of the children, as various parents were violating policy by leaving early with their children. Id. ¶¶ 14-15. Furthermore, Colandrea was not reprimanded after the trip, and she claims that Sweeney “did not blame [her] or the teachers, but rather the parent chaperones for the chaos.” Id. ¶ 16. Sweeney wrote an email to the complaining parents and informed them that he was changing CROP's policy so that parents could no longer serve as chaperones, and that parents would need to sign their children out directly with Colandrea in the future. Sweeney Dep. Ex. 28.

         The following month, Colandrea was involved in an incident at the school cafeteria with a student's parent, though not during a CROP event. Pl.'s SMF Resp. ¶ 23. On June 17, 2014, Colandrea reprimanded a student for throwing a “super ball” near glass punch bowls and glass picture frames, while the child's parent, Jessika McKinnie, was in the cafeteria. Colandrea Aff. ¶¶ 26-27. McKinnie said that Colandrea had no right to discipline her child while McKinnie was present. Id. Colandrea responded by telling McKinnie that “if she was the parent, then she should go be the parent, as her child [was] crying.” Id. ¶ 28. Both McKinnie and Colandrea raised their voices. Dkt. No. 24 (“Colandrea Deposition”) at 36:23-37:1. Defendants claim that Colandrea “was screaming at [McKinnie] and said that [McKinnie] was not a good mother, or words to that effect, ” Lynch Affirm. ¶ 28, but both McKinnie and Colandrea deny this claim, Colandrea Aff. ¶ 29; Dkt. No. 30-3 (“McKinnie Affidavit”) ¶ 10. McKinnie also states that she never discussed the incident with Sweeney. McKinnie Aff. ¶¶ 12-15.

         The following day, Colandrea received an email from Sweeney stating that he would not recommend her for reappointment as Site Coordinator for the 2014 summer program. Dkt. No. 30-5 (“Sweeney CROP Email”). Sweeney provided no explanation for his decision, id., and the following day he recommended that the position be given to Rosie Iacono, who was less qualified than Colandrea but approximately four years younger, Colandrea Aff. ¶ 37.[2] Over the summer of 2014, Colandrea also applied multiple times to be an Activity Leader, but her applications were denied. Id. ¶¶ 44, 57. Instead, a teacher's aide, who was younger and less qualified than Colandrea, was hired for the position. Id. ¶ 45. According to Defendants, Colandrea was not hired for the CROP positions because of the problems with the trip to the Bronx Zoo and because of the incident with McKinnie. Lynch Affirm. ¶ 32. Colandrea disagrees and notes that a younger teacher, Tina Schlegal, had a similar incident with McKinnie on October 29, 2015, but Schlegal never received a counseling memorandum and continued working as an Activity Leader. Colandrea Aff. ¶ 61. Colandrea claims that the real reason she was not rehired as Site Coordinator is that Defendants wanted her to retire from teaching, but she refused to do so. Id. ¶ 37.

         Colandrea is one of the oldest teachers in her school district and is the oldest teacher at her school. Id. ¶ 6. She is also a member of the district's teachers' union and is covered by a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between HTCSD and the teachers' union. Defs.' SMF ¶ 4. The CBA contains a provision for an early retirement incentive that amounted to $41, 000 for Colandrea. Id. ¶ 6; Dkt. No. 30-7 (“Murin Affidavit”) ¶ 4. Once a teacher becomes eligible for the early retirement incentive, the CBA provides a window in which eligible teachers may elect to take the incentive, but teachers must submit a written application to the District Superintendent at least 120 days prior to the last day of their employment. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 6-7. Teachers may also apply to extend the window of eligibility for the retirement incentive on a year-to-year basis, but such applications must be made six months before the expiration of the eligibility window. Id. ¶ 8. The District Superintendent must recommend a teacher to the Board, Sweeney Dep. Ex. 15B at 1, and the final decision on an extension request is made by a vote of the Board, Defs.' SMF ¶ 10.

         Colandrea's eligibility window for the retirement incentive closed in June 2014, Lynch Affirm. ¶ 11, and she timely applied for an extension on December 13, 2013, Colandrea Aff. ¶ 18. Colandrea applied for the extension in part because her daughter has a life-long disability, and Colandrea knew that issues surrounding her daughter's disability insurance would not be resolved until after July 1, 2014. Id. ¶ 24. When Colandrea raised the issue with Sweeney, he told her that she should retire because she would make more money, and he said that he would not bring her extension request to the Board for a vote. Id. ¶ 18. After discovering that her request for an extension had been placed on the Board's meeting agenda, Colandrea reached out to the individual members of the Board to inform them of her daughter's health insurance situation. Id. ¶ 19. The Board ultimately denied Colandrea's extension request in a 5-0 vote. Defs.' SMF ¶ 14.

         On May 8, 2014, Colandrea received a counseling memorandum from Sweeney reprimanding her for reaching out to individual members of the Board “in clear violation of state education law and procedural process.” Sweeney Dep. Ex. 15A at 1. Sweeney went on to state that Colandrea had shown a “pattern of defiance of authority and rude/disrespectful behavior.” Id. Colandrea responded that this was the first negative letter she had received in her personnel file in thirty-three years of teaching, and that she was not negotiating with the Board; she was only informing them of her daughter's health insurance situation, which Sweeney had failed to do on her behalf. Sweeney Dep. Ex. 15B at 1.

         Despite the Board's vote and Sweeney's May 2014 counseling memorandum, Sweeney gave Colandrea several more opportunities to accept the retirement incentive without the normal requirement of 120 days' written notice. Defs.' SMF ¶ 15. In fact, Colandrea and Sweeney met four times between June 20, 2014, and July 1, 2014, to discuss the retirement incentive. Colandrea Aff. ¶ 40. Ultimately, Colandrea rejected the early retirement incentive, and she continues to be employed as a teacher by HTCSD. Lynch Affirm. ¶¶ 18-19. Although Defendants claim that Colandrea was never pressured to retire, id. ¶ 16, Colandrea tells a different story, Colandrea Aff. ¶¶ 40-43; Colandrea Dep. 15:16-15:20.

         Colandrea claims that Sweeney took several steps to coerce her into retiring. Colandrea Aff. ¶¶ 18, 37. First, on June 18, 2014, Sweeney informed Colandrea that he would not recommend her for the Site Coordinator position. Id. ¶ 32. As a result, Colandrea claims to have lost a significant amount of potential income and pension benefits. Id. ¶¶ 46-47. Indeed, Colandrea claims that-assuming she would have worked five more years as Site Coordinator before retiring, and that she would have lived for thirty years after retiring-she lost $100, 000 in potential income, and she lost an additional $400, 000 from her pension. Id. Second, Sweeney rejected Colandrea's June 22, 2014 application to work as an Activity Leader in the CROP program. Id. ¶ 44. Third, in a June 30, 2014 meeting, Sweeney informed Colandrea that she would not be considered for any extra paid work assignments that were not guaranteed by her contract during the upcoming school year. Id. ¶ 52. Finally, Sweeney did not publicly recognize Colandrea for receiving the NYSECTA Pre-K Teacher of the Year award, and he prematurely removed the announcement from the elementary school billboard. Id. ¶ 35.

         After her applications for the Site Coordinator and Activity Leader positions were rejected, Colandrea filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the New York State Division of Human Rights (“NYSDHR”) on July 8, 2014. Id. ¶¶ 33, 44, 55. Defendants were notified of the complaint sometime in August 2014, and Colandrea claims that Sweeney retaliated against her for filing those complaints. Id. First, Colandrea submitted additional applications for the CROP positions in July and August 2014, which were also rejected. Id. ¶ 57. Second, Colandrea was not asked to mentor any new staff members. Opp'n at 22-23. Third, on September 9, 2014, Colandrea received a counseling memorandum from Sweeney reprimanding her for her behavior during the June 17, 2014 incident with McKinnie. Sweeney Dep. Ex. 16A. Colandrea claims that the timing of the counseling memorandum-which she received months after the incident, but just weeks after the school learned of her age discrimination complaint-shows that it was retaliatory. Colandrea Aff. ¶ 55. Defendants, on the other hand, claim that the counseling memorandum was not retaliation; the memorandum was delayed only because the incident occurred just before summer break. Lynch Affirm. ¶¶ 29-30.

         On April 14, 2015, Colandrea filed the Complaint in this action, alleging that Defendants discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the ADEA and NYSHRL. On July 14, 2016, Defendants filed the Motion for Summary Judgement. Colandrea submitted an opposition, but Defendants did not file a reply.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instructs courts to grant summary judgment if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Although “[f]actual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary” will not preclude summary judgment, “summary judgment will not lie if . . . the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also Taggart v. Time, Inc., 924 F.2d 43, 46 (2d Cir. 1991) (“Only when no reasonable trier of fact could find in favor of the nonmoving party should summary judgment be granted.”).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for the motion and of identifying those portions of the record that the moving party claims will demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Similarly, a party is entitled to summary judgment when the nonmoving party carries the ultimate burden of proof and has failed “to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. at 322.

         In attempting to repel a motion for summary judgment after the moving party has met its initial burden, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). At the same time, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000); Nora Beverages, Inc. v. Perrier Grp. of Am., Inc., 164 F.3d 736, 742 (2d Cir. 1998). Thus, a court's duty in reviewing a motion for summary judgment is “carefully limited” to finding genuine disputes of fact, “not to deciding them.” Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Colandrea brings claims of discrimination and retaliation against both HTCSD and Sweeney under the ADEA and the NYSHRL. Compl. ¶ 1. Claims under the NYSHRL and the ADEA are analyzed under the same standard: the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Robles v. Cox & Co., 987 F.Supp.2d 199, 205-06 (E.D.N.Y. 2013); see also Abdu-Brisson v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 239 F.3d 456, 467 (2d Cir. 2001) (“Although there are differences between the State HRL . . . and the [ADEA], age discrimination suits brought under the State HRL . . . are subject to the same analysis as claims brought under the ADEA.”).

         A. Discrimination

         Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff alleging age discrimination must first make out a prima facie case by showing that: (1) she was over the age of forty, (2) she was qualified for the position in question, (3) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) the adverse action took place under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. Terry v. Ashcroft, 336 F.3d 128, 137-38 (2d Cir. 2003). “A plaintiff's burden of establishing a prima facie case is de minimis.” Abdu-Brisson, 239 F.3d at 467. If the plaintiff meets this minimal burden, the employer must offer a “clear and specific” nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 996-97 (2d Cir. 1985). Once such a reason is provided, the plaintiff can no longer rely on her prima facie case but may still prevail if she can show that the employer's determination was in fact the result of discrimination. Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130, 138 (2d Cir. 2008). “‘[A] plaintiff bringing a disparate-treatment claim pursuant to the ADEA must prove, by a ...


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