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Senese v. Longwood Central School District

United States District Court, E.D. New York

August 3, 2018

ADAM SENESE, Plaintiff,
LONGWOOD CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, along with LAURA HOPKINS, CARA CHUDYK, and JANINE ROZYCKI, in their individual capacity as aiders and abettors, Defendants.

          Zabell & Associates, P.C. Counsel for the Plaintiff By: Saul D. Zabell, Esq., Of Counsel

          Sokoloff Stern LLP Counsel for the Defendants By: Adam I. Kleinberg, Esq., Kaitlyn R. McKenna, Jr., Esq., Of Counsel



         On December 18, 2015, the Plaintiff Adam Senese (the “Plaintiff” or “Senese”) brought this federal discrimination action against the Defendants, Longwood Central School District (“LCSD” or the “District”), along with Laura Hopkins (“Hopkins”), Cara Chudyk (“Chudyk”), and Janine Rozycki (“Rozycki (collectively, the “Defendants”), alleging gender-based discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. L. § 290 et seq. (“NYSHRL”), based on the Plaintiff's suspension and termination from his position as a probationary special education teacher with the District.

         Presently before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by the Defendants, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Fed. R. Civ. P.” or “Rule”) 56 seeking to dismiss the complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed and are drawn from the parties' Local Rule 56.1 statements.

         A. The Factual Background

         1. The Plaintiff's Teaching Background

         The Plaintiff is a male who is approximately 6'2” and weighs roughly 250 pounds. Prior to working for the District, Senese worked for Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services (“BOCES”). In 2009, after graduating from college, the Plaintiff began work as a substitute teaching assistant at BOCES. In the fall of 2010, he was hired as a full-time teaching assistant. Three years later, Senese received tenure as a teaching assistant at BOCES. That same year, 2013, he also obtained a New York State teaching certification. Senese is certified to teach elementary students from grades one through six and disabled students from grades one through six. During the course of his employment with BOCES, the Plaintiff became certified in Nonviolent Crisis Prevention (“NCP”) at the Crisis Prevention Institute (“CPI”).

         In June 2013, the Plaintiff applied for a teaching position with the District, a public school district located in Suffolk County. On his employment application, the Plaintiff noted his CPI training. Chudyk, a District teaching assistant with LCSD since 2007, also applied for the same position but was subsequently rejected. The Plaintiff was selected for an initial interview, which was conducted by a panel composed of female employees. He then performed a lesson to a group of special education students for Scott Schuster (“Schuster”), the Director of Elementary Special Education, Yvette Tilley, a school principal, and Jen McCarthy, a Director of Secondary Special Education. Following the lesson, the Plaintiff was interviewed by Kevin McCarthy, an Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources (“AS McCarthy”), and Debra Winter, the Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Services. At some point thereafter, AS McCarthy called the Plaintiff to offer him a probationary teaching position with the District. Neither side contends that gender was a factor during the hiring process.

         The Plaintiff accepted the position and was assigned to work as a special education teacher at Ridge Elementary School (“Ridge”), one of the District's four elementary schools, for the 2013-2014 school year. Senese was subject to a two-year probationary period with the District, rather than the typical three-year period because of at the time of his hire, he was a tenured employee with BOCES. Ridge contained students in kindergarten through fourth grade in addition to special education classes of various ages. At all relevant times, Rozycki was employed as Ridge's Principal and Hopkins was employed as Assistant Principal. In 2010, Hopkins received her CPI certification, but by the 2014-2015 school year, it had lapsed.

         2. The 2013-2014 School Year

         Specifically, the Plaintiff was assigned to teach developmentally disabled students from grades three through five in the District's Alternative Learning Program (“ALP”). ALP contained developmentally and intellectually disabled students. Students were assigned to ALP based on the recommendations of the District Committee of Special Education and typically remained in the program until twenty-one years of age. ALP included students with severe disabilities. During the 2013-2014 school year, the Plaintiff's class was originally assigned eight students, but later in the year, that number decreased to seven. Senese had one teaching assistant, Melissa Lopez (“Lopez”) in addition to four, one-to-one aides who were assigned to assist individual students on a daily basis. One of those one-to-one aides was Vanessa Holzhauser (“Holzhauser”). The Plaintiff reported to Schuster, Rozycki, and Hopkins. Throughout the year, Schuster and Rozycki conducted multiple classroom observations and performance evaluations and did not indicate any problems with Senese's performance.

         During the Plaintiff's deposition, he testified that he did not recall any incidents during his first year with the District where he physically restrained a student. Hopkins testified that at some point during the school year, she witnessed the Plaintiff bring Student R, a male student, into the bathroom, and observed him in the stall with the student. When Hopkins inquired as to why he was assisting Student R with toileting, Senese explained that female aides were uncomfortable doing so as the student recently “discovered himself.” Hopkins testified that she told Senese: “[J]ust as I would tell anybody, please step into the threshold of the bathroom and not be in the stall with him because, again, you're putting yourself at risk as misinterpretation as to why you're in the stall with him.” The Plaintiff did not recall this incident.

         At the conclusion of the 2013-2014 school year, the Plaintiff was asked to return for his second and final probationary year.

         3. The 2014-2015 School Year

         The Plaintiff's class for the 2014-2015 school year consisted of seven students, with three of his students returning from the previous year, and four new students. Lopez was no longer the Plaintiff's teaching assistant as she was promoted to a teaching position in the District before the new school year. The District replaced her with Chudyk, who had worked in the District for eight years. Chudyk had previously applied for a position within the District as a teacher and at that point was unsuccessful in attaining such a position. Many of Senese's one-to-one aides returned from the prior year. His new aides included Gina Grasso (“Grasso”) and David Glover (“Glover”). Senese was also joined every morning by Tara Rider (“Rider”), a vision teacher, who spent approximately one to two hours with a visually-impaired student in his class.

         In February 2015, the Plaintiff was sent by the District for CPI training, which consisted of a three-day, off-site course. He joined Scott Jackson (“Jackson”), a speech teacher at Ridge, Diane Porter, an ALP teacher, and JoMara Lopez, a District administrator, as representatives of the District at CPI training. After attending the training, the Plaintiff discussed what he had learned with AS McCarthy. Later that spring, the Plaintiff was invited by Schuster to attend the District's Aspiring Administrator Academy (“AAA”). AAA is a District-wide initiative to identify teachers that demonstrate leadership abilities and train them for future careers as administrators with the District.

         Prior to February of 2015, the Plaintiff did not physically restrain any students, nor did he witness any other teachers doing the same. Further, at that time, to the Plaintiff's knowledge, no aides or teaching assistants had ever employed such methods in his classroom.

         4. Incidents of Physical Restraint

         Between February 2015 and April 2015, the Plaintiff was involved in at least two incidents with Student B where she had to be restrained physically. Student B was a disabled student in Renee Mintel's (“Mintel”) class. Mintel was another ALP teacher at Ridge during the relevant time period. The first incident occurred when Mintel called the Plaintiff into her classroom to help restrain Student B, who was acting physically aggressive. During his deposition, Senese testified that only himself, Mintel, and Student B were present in the classroom at the time of the incident and that he does not recall the specifics of what occurred that day.

         In the second incident, Mintel called both the Plaintiff and Jackson to assist with physically restraining Student B. The Plaintiff's deposition revealed that he did not recall any of the specifics of the incident, including who else was in the classroom at the time, Student B's behavior, or how he and Jackson physically restrained her. In one of the incidents, Student B was in the process of physically attacking Mintel by the time he arrived. Mintel had sent for the Plaintiff when the altercation began, and one of Mintel's aides found and retrieved the Plaintiff soon after. Senese utilized a defensive CPI technique which involves holding the student's wrist with one hand and using the other hand to protect your body. Rozycki was present for one of the above-mentioned incidents and witnessed the Plaintiff and Jackson use a “team hold” to physically restrain Student B.

         During the Plaintiff's deposition, he recalled bringing Student B into a conference room to help calm her down, although he could not remember if it was part of the above-mentioned incidents, or if it occurred during the course of a separate incident. It was Mintel's decision to move her to the conference room.

         On Wednesday, April 22, 2015, Hopkins observed the Plaintiff, Student B, Mintel, another teacher, and a security guard walking down a hallway and entering a conference room. The Plaintiff and Student B entered the conference room while the rest of the staff members remained outside. Mintel had called Senese for assistance when Student B began protesting about doing class work and otherwise disrupting the class. Hopkins testified that she witnessed the Plaintiff extending Student B's arm while giving her instructions to sit “in a very forceful manner.” At that point, Student B crawled under the conference table. Stephanie Columbia (“Columbia”), the District social worker, eventually coaxed Student B out from under the table. Hopkins dismissed the Plaintiff and she and Columbia stayed with Student B until she calmed down and was able to return to the classroom. Based on the record, it is unclear if this incident is separate and distinct from the two above-mentioned incidents.

         5. The Investigation

         On Monday, April 27, 2015, Hopkins spoke with Columbia concerning what she observed on April 22, 2015, noting that she did not believe that the situation required the use of CPI or any other physical restraint. Columbia suggested that Hopkins speak with Rozycki regarding her concerns. That same day, Hopkins had a discussion with Rozycki regarding her concern about a recent interaction between the Plaintiff and a student that she had observed. Rozycki testified that Hopkins' account left her concerned, so she suggested that Hopkins speak with the Plaintiff to see if the restraint technique used was one which he was recently trained to perform.

         Later that day, Hopkins spoke to the Plaintiff in a conference room near the school office about what she witnessed on April 22, 2015. The Plaintiff did not recall Hopkins being present at any incident involving Student B, so he inquired as to an incident date to refresh his recollection. Hopkins refused to give the Plaintiff a date. Although Senese could not discuss with Hopkins what specifically happened, as he did not recall it, he assured Hopkins that he always used proper CPI techniques in every interaction with students. Hopkins noted that she did not recall learning about the technique used on April 22, 2015 in her own CPI training.

         At some point in the conversation, Hopkins testified that she told the Plaintiff, “We are adults. These are young elementary age children. You're a big guy. She's a young girl. When you were doing that maneuver and she was saying ouch, don't put yourself in harm's way. Don't put her in harm's way.” While the Plaintiff did not recall his response, Hopkins testified that Senese repeated “gotcha.” Senese testified that Hopkins told him that “as a man in the school you has to be that much more careful than anybody else. … [A]s a big guy, … [you] should be more careful in [your] actions. And then [Hopkins] went on to say that even regarding taking students to the bathroom, that it was inappropriate for a man to take a student to the bathroom.” It is not clear if Hopkins was referring to the incident she claimed to witness during the 2013-2014 school year. The Plaintiff did not know which incident, if any, Hopkins was referring to during the conversation. Overall, the conversation between Hopkins and the Plaintiff lasted a few minutes.

         Hopkins reported to Rozycki that she spoke with the Plaintiff about what she witnessed and discussed her concerns. Rozycki testified that Hopkins “explained … that she spoke to [Senese] in our conference room. That she conveyed what she had seen and her concern. [Rozycki] believed, there were some … questions to [Senese] about the CPI training. [S]he may have indicated to [Senese] that many years ago she had been CPI trained and she had not seen that [type of restraint]. She felt that it is concerning. The student was saying ouch and [Senese] needed to be careful.”

         Approximately one hour after speaking with Hopkins, the Plaintiff spoke with Rozycki in the hallway. Senese testified, in pertinent part:

I had brought up what [Hopkins] had said, and [Rozycki] said she knew about it, that [Hopkins] had brought it up to her days before, and that her advice was that since [Hopkins] witnessed the incident that she should come talk to me. … I said [to Rozycki], I don't believe I did anything wrong, and I said that you had seen me in crisis before, have you ever seen me do anything that you would construe as, you know, the allegations of [Hopkins]. She said no.

         Senese also stated in his deposition that he informed Rozycki that Hopkins referred to him during their previous conversation as a “big guy” and informed him that he should be careful around children. The Plaintiff did not tell Rozycki that he felt it was inappropriate because he felt it was implied. Rozycki did not recall the Plaintiff mentioning such a comment. When the Plaintiff asked if Hopkins' conversation would result in him being written up, Rozycki assured him that he would not be, and advised him not to lose sleep over it.

         Two days later, on Wednesday, April 29, 2015, Chudyk called Hopkins to discuss her concerns regarding the Plaintiff's interactions with students during that month. She had previously spoken with Columbia and relayed this conversation to Hopkins. She discussed three separate incidents with Columbia regarding the Plaintiff: (1) when he became angry with a student who showed his food to another student and would not watch a movie in class after a field trip; (2) when he grabbed a student by his/her collar and placed his hand around that student's neck; and (3) when a student was stimming, which is the repetition of movements, sounds or objects, the Plaintiff grabbed her wrists, placed them on the desk, and put enough pressure on them with his fingers, that the student audibly complained. During her conversation with Hopkins, Chudyk specifically stated that she observed the Plaintiff, “[p]inching, [holding] wrists, holding hands, [grabbing the] shoulder area, and grabbing one student by the shirt, by the neck area.” Chudyk did not allege that the students received physical injuries in these instances. Chudyk also informed Hopkins that she felt unease with the way he interacted with her in the classroom. She testified that she waited approximately one week before telling Columbia and Hopkins because (1) she felt intimidated by the Plaintiff; (2) he was well liked; and (3) she feared she would not be believed. At the end of the conversation, Hopkins informed Chudyk that she needed to discuss these concerns with Rozycki.

         Later that evening, Hopkins received a phone call from Grasso, who relayed her own concerns regarding the Plaintiff's classroom behavior. During her deposition, Hopkins testified that,

[Grasso] shared with me what she observed in the classroom. She gave several examples of holding of the hands, holding of the wrists, holding of the shoulders. She gave examples with [Student A] specifically that she came in off the school bus one morning into the classroom, was lying on the carpet area, had kicked [Senese] because he had been standing over where she was laying. She had kicked him and then he in turn kicked her. And her words, “With such force that the child spun around on the carpet.”

         At the conclusion of the conversation, Hopkins texted Rozycki to indicate that she wished to speak with her.

         On April 30, 2015, Hopkins informed Rozycki that she spoke with Chudyk and Grasso the day before and indicated that they had information that they needed to discuss with her. In accordance with District procedure, Rozycki began an investigation into the allegations that day. Both Chudyk and Grasso met with Rozycki on April 30, 2015. Chudyk, who was the first to be called to Rozycki's office relayed the following information, according to Rozycki:

Chudyk said that the atmosphere in [Senese's] classroom was very tense. That he was often intimidating to the staff in the classroom. People were uncomfortable. The staff in the classroom was uncomfortable. She said she had seen the squeezing of the hands, to my best recollection. That she often saw him yelling at children and being rude to staff members in the classroom. … She also relayed that he often made her feel very uncomfortable. She also relayed very often in the classroom[] lots of movies were being watched. That instruction only went on when an administrator was in close proximity.

         Grasso was also called to Rozycki's office. According to Rozycki, Grasso indicated that she had witnessed a series of incidents over the past few weeks that made her feel uncomfortable. She reported that she saw the Plaintiff angry with the children often, that she witnessed him squeezing their wrists, kicking a child, and grabbing another by the collar.

         Rozycki then called Schuster to inform him of the accusations and ask him to come to her office. When he arrived, they proceeded to ask additional staff to report to the office and answer questions. These staff members included Rider, Glover and Xiomarra Camara (“Camara”). Rider reported a disagreement with the Plaintiff regarding the reporting of a child's eating habits to the parents. The Plaintiff told Rider to mind her own business or he would call her supervisor and have her fired. Glover and Camara stated to Rozycki that they had nothing to report regarding the Plaintiff's classroom behavior. At some point that day, the Plaintiff noticed that aides in his classroom were being pulled out of class and he inquired to Rozycki if anything was wrong. Rozycki informed the Plaintiff that there were accusations made against him. The Plaintiff was later removed from his classroom and placed in a conference room, where he, along with a union representative, met with Rozycki and Schuster. At that time, he was presented with the allegations and summarily denied them.

         At some point in the afternoon, Rozycki emailed Dr. Michael Lonergan (“Lonergan”), the District's Superintendent of Schools, to inform him of the status of her investigation. Rozycki agreed to interview a teacher's aide from the 2013-2014 school year the next day. She then completed and faxed Lonergan a Child Abuse in the Educational Setting Form (“Child Abuse Form”). In the Child Abuse Form, Rozycki listed Grasso, Chudyk and Hopkins as reporters, and specifically alleged that the Plaintiff, “Squeez[ed] shoulder with pressure[, s]queez[ed] wrists with pressure and restraint[, k]ick[ed] student's leg[, p]inch[ed] a child under his chin[, and r]estrain[ed] a student with ...

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