Verdict against district upheld
Saturday, August 7, 2010
By Paula Ann Mitchell
Kingston Daily Freeman
PINE PLAINS — A federal judge Thursday upheld a verdict against the Pine Plains school district, ruling there was sufficient evidence of racial discrimination and deliberate indifference against former student Anthony Zeno to justify a damage award of $1 million.
Back in March, an all-white jury concluded that the school district had violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and awarded $1.25 million to Zeno.
The judge Thursday reduced that amount to $1 million, but he rejected the school district’s efforts to more significantly reduce the award, said Stephen Bergstein of the Chester-based Bergstein and Ullrich, which represented the Zenos.
Bergstein said he expected this outcome on both fronts.
“Once the jury reaches its findings, it’s very hard to overturn. The court of appeals has to accept what the jury found. They can’t reweigh the evidence. They can’t re-examine the factual evidence on appeal the way the jury looks at the evidence,” Bergstein said.
It’s also not uncommon for costly verdicts to get reduced, he noted.
“Most discrimination cases, they’re not million-dollar cases. This was different because it involved a child,” he said.
“There are far more employment discrimination lawsuits than education discrimination lawsuits. You don’t see too many in the educational context, but there is a federal regulation that recognizes that emotional harm for a teenager at school is a different emotional harm than (for) an adult in a work place,” Bergstein said.
The Zenos moved to Pine Plains from Long Island in January 2005, and Anthony, who is multi-racial, was harassed almost immediately after he began attending Stissing Mountain High School, Bergstein said.
“It was three years of hell. There was a lot of violence and threats … and his grades and academics suffered as a result of this,” Bergstein said.
“You can never get your high school years back. It’s not like work where you can find another, better job. Once you’re out of high school, it’s over.”
Bergstein said the harassment continued despite repeated efforts by the family to stop it and the school’s attempt to punish offenders and involve diversity trainers.
“They were implicitly giving the green light. At some point, the actions of the racist kids are the responsibility of the school because the school was in a position to make it stop, and it didn’t,” Bergstein said.
School officials referred all inquiries about the outcome to the Albany-based firm of Towne, Ryan and Partners, which represents the Pine Plains district. Calls to the law firm were not returned Friday.
Judge upholds verdict in Pine Plains discrimination case
August 9, 2010
A federal judge who presided at a racial discrimination trial involving a former student in the Pine Plains Central School District has sustained the
verdict but reduced the amount to be awarded in damages.
Following a week-long trial in White Plains in March, the jury found the school district had failed to adequately address racial harassment, assaults and a death threat against former student Anthony Zeno, 21. Zeno attended Pine Plains schools from 2005 to 2008.
Federal District Court Judge Paul E. Davison rejected the school district’s post-trial motion to have the verdict overturned. But Davison reduced the
damages awarded by the jury from $1.25 million to $1 million.
The Zeno family’s attorney, Stephen Bergstein, of Chester, Orange County, said he expected the school district to appeal the verdict and the damage award.
Zeno’s parents, Henry and Cathleen Zeno, filed the suit on their son’s behalf. Henry Zeno is Latino and Cathleen Zeno is white, Bergstein said. Anthony is "very dark skinned," which led to him being taunted by white students at Stissing Mountain Junior-Senior High School with racial epithets and racially motivated threats, he said.