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Leon v. Department of Education

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 27, 2017

ALVIN CHARLES LEON, Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHERINE POLK FAILLA, District Judge

         For over 30 years, Plaintiff Alvin Charles Leon worked as a teacher and guidance counselor for the New York City Department of Education (the “DOE” or “Defendant”). And for nearly all of those years, Plaintiff received no negative feedback about his performance. But things changed in 2010, when Teri Stinson became the principal of Public School 30M (“P.S. 30M”), where Plaintiff was then employed. Stinson and Plaintiff did not get along. According to Plaintiff, Stinson publicly berated him. She overloaded his schedule with menial tasks. And she gave Plaintiff two negative year-end performance reviews that had the ultimate effect of freezing Plaintiff's salary. In 2014, the discord between Plaintiff and Stinson reached a fever pitch, and Plaintiff was forced into an early retirement.

         In 2015, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, sued the DOE and Stinson, claiming that Stinson had discriminated against him on the basis of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (the “ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634. Plaintiff amended his complaint in 2016, removing Stinson as a defendant and increasing substantially the volume of his allegations.[1]

         Defendant has moved to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that it is untimely and meritless. Because the Court disagrees with both of those arguments, Defendant's motion is denied.

         BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Factual Background

         Including attachments, Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is 166 (mostly single-spaced) pages long. Many of the allegations therein are duplicative; many more concern workplace slights that have no bearing on whether Defendant unlawfully discriminated against Plaintiff. What follows here is an abbreviated account of the Amended Complaint's allegations, which the Court accepts as true for the purposes of this Opinion. E.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         Plaintiff is 63 years old and began working for Defendant in October of 1982. (AC 3, 16). He started his career as a teacher, but was a tenured guidance counselor at P.S. 30M when this case's operative events occurred. (Id. at 13; id., Ex. C at 2). Up until the time Stinson joined P.S. 30M, Plaintiff never had a “blemish” on his professional record. (AC 15; accord Id. at 29).

         Stinson became P.S. 30M's principal in 2010. (AC 11; id., Ex. K at 3). Although the Amended Complaint does not disclose clearly why or when the antagonism between Plaintiff and Stinson began, it does make clear that that antagonism was acute and sustained. Stinson, for example, is alleged to have “humiliated and disrespected” Plaintiff by “yell[ing] at [him] or condescendingly sp[eaking] to [him] in front of [his] students, parents[, ] and staff.” (AC 25; id., Ex. F at 22). “Stinson would … often peer into [Plaintiff's] office through the glass panel in [his] door” and look at Plaintiff and his students “in a menacing, disdainful way.” (AC 17-18). And Stinson directed Plaintiff to perform several unnecessary workplace tasks in an effort “to overload or overburden [Plaintiff] … and frustrate [him] to the point of retirement.” (Id. at 18).

         Stinson also put “falsified reports and … lying letters” in Plaintiff's employee file, and those documents “discredited unjustly [Plaintiff's] job performance and [his] character.” (AC 15). Among these reports were two year-end evaluation forms - one for the 2011-12 school year, which Stinson Dated: June 14, 2012, and another for the 2012-13 school year, which Stinson signed on June 21, 2013 - in which Stinson gave Plaintiff an “Overall Evaluation” rating of “U” (for “Unsatisfactory”). (Id., Ex. D). The first of these reports indicated that Plaintiff was late to work 25 times in the 2011-12 school year; Stinson deemed Plaintiff's “lateness” “excessive.” (Id.).

         These year-end reports had two financial consequences for Plaintiff. First, they prevented Plaintiff “from working during summer school months and … working school processions during the regular school terms.” (AC 20; accord Id. at 5). Plaintiff recounts that he had worked during the summer “consecutively for about 19 years, ” and that “[t]he income from these summer procession jobs, etc., [was] very instrumental” to him. (Id., Ex. K at 4). Second, the negative reports prevented Plaintiff from receiving “yearly salary raises.” (AC 20; accord Id. at 5). The reports appear to corroborate this: They indicate that Plaintiff received the same salary for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. (Id., Ex D). Although Plaintiff writes that he “was given waivers to later appeal” these two ratings, Plaintiff “was never granted hearings for” these appeals, and it does not appear that the “waivers” ameliorated either of the reports' financial consequences. (AC 5; accord Id. at 20; see Pl. Opp. 6, 11).

         Plaintiff alleges that Stinson's animosity towards him was - at least in part - born of her distaste for older educators, and Plaintiff supports this claim with an array of circumstantial evidence. “[M]ore than once, ” Plaintiff recalls, “Stinson called [Plaintiff] into her office … and asked [Plaintiff] how old [he] was and how many years [he had] worked for the” DOE. (AC 17). At school meetings, Stinson “gleefully and almost laughingly” discussed bolstering P.S. 30M's budget with money formerly paid to “recently retired” “staff members”; some of that money, Plaintiff recalls, went to “hiring … younger and less experienced” teachers. (Id. at 16). Plaintiff further alleges that someone (he does not identify who) saw “letters or documentation from the [DOE] in … Stinson's office” that “encourage[d] or instruct[ed] [Stinson] to get rid of seasoned or aged staff of P.S. 30M.” (Id. at 31; accord Id. at 23).

         And it appears that Plaintiff was not the only “experienced” P.S. 30M employee to suffer from Stinson's discrimination. Attached to Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is a list of roughly a dozen former P.S. 30M teachers and staff members - all of whom are over 40 years old, “practically all of” whom were “forced to” “resign[]” or “retire[]” or who were “transferred” out of the school, and many of whom were replaced by individuals under the age of 40. (AC, Ex. A).

         On February 26, 2014, and evidently at Stinson's behest, a “Notice of Determination of Probable Cause on Education Law § 3020-a Charges” was issued against Plaintiff. (AC, Ex. H; see AC 16). Section 3020-a provides a statutory mechanism for bringing charges of “incompetency or misconduct” against tenured New York City educational employees. N.Y. Educ. Law § 3020-a(1). Plaintiff states that the basis for his § 3020-a notice was Stinson's “allegations and accusations … with regards to insubordination, poor work performance, and unprofessionalism.” (AC 15). Plaintiff was subsequently “given an ‘ultimatum' that if [he] retired by June 30, 2014 … all charges [against him] would be dropped.” (Id.). An undated draft of Defendant's “Post-Charge Stipulation of Settlement” is attached as an exhibit to the Amended Complaint: It provides, in relevant part, that if Plaintiff “irrevocably retire[d] from employment with the” DOE, he would receive “a ‘neutral letter' documenting his service with [the] DOE, ” but would be unable to “seek []or accept any employment with the [DOE] after the effective date of his irrevocable retirement.” (AC, Ex. C at 5-6). Plaintiff accepted the DOE's offer, and entered into an “unjust[, ] vile[, ] ‘forced' retirement” on June 30, 2014. (AC 15, 20).

         B. Procedural Background

         On January 31, 2014 (and by Plaintiff's account, also before that date), Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”). (AC 3). On June 12, 2015, the EEOC mailed to Plaintiff a letter (the “Right to Sue Letter”) that stated that the EEOC would not be pursuing Plaintiff's case and instructed Plaintiff that if he wished to sue the DOE, he would have to do so within 90 days of receiving the letter. (Id. at 8-9, 12).

         On September 14, 2015, Plaintiff filed his initial Complaint, naming the DOE and Stinson as defendants. (Compl. 1). There, Plaintiff wrote that he had received the EEOC's Right to Sue Letter on June 12, 2015. (Id. at 4). Plaintiff attached that letter, which bears a June 12, 2015 mailing date, to his Complaint. (Id. at 5-6).

         The Court held a conference on the DOE and Stinson's proposed motion to dismiss the Complaint on March 31, 2016. (3/31/16 Conf. Tr. 1; see Dkt. #12). During the conference, counsel for the DOE and Stinson argued that Plaintiff's Complaint was untimely, because if Plaintiff had received the EEOC's Right to Sue Letter on June 12, 2015, then he needed to file his Complaint by September 10, 2015 (four days before Plaintiff actually filed it). (Id. at ...


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