Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A cornucopia of reasons to reinstate a teacher's Title VII claims against an upstate school district

This is a 20 page summary order issued by the Court of Appeals in resolving an upstate school-teacher's employment discrimination claim. Summary orders are normally four to five pages, but this one goes on and on because the district court made various mistakes that require extended discussion. Buried in the otherwise routine analysis is an interesting discovery ruling in which the district court abused its discretion.

The case is Carter v. Syracuse City Sch. Dist., issued on July 11. Here are the rulings in bite-size chunks:

1. Plaintiff did not have to file a notice of claim against the district in order to preserve her state law claims. The Second Circuit cites a recent State Court of Appeals ruling that "a notice of claim need not be filed for a Human Rights Law claim against against a municipality." That is so because HRL claims are not torts claims.

2. Plaintiff has plead a racial and gender discrimination claim against the district under Title VII. The district court got it wrong in holding that she had to plead a prima facie case of discrimination in order to thwart a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. She pleads a claim in alleging her negative performance review was a sham that caused her to be placed on an "assistance plan" for deficient teachers and rendered her ineligible for certain teaching programs that would have paid her cash money. Lest there be any doubt, the Vice Principal allegedly told plaintiff the negative performance review "was due to her race and gender." Did the Vice Principal really say this? Will a jury believe plaintiff's testimony that he did? That's what trials are for. If plaintiff said it happened in her complaint, then the district court has to believe it's true for purposes of ruling on the Rule 12 motion.

3. She also has a retaliation claim. Plaintiff does not have to plead a prima facie case of retaliation, the Second Circuit reminds us. After she filed a discrimination charge with the State Division of Human Rights, plaintiff asked the district to relocate her to another school, which could have been done without difficulty, and requests like this are routinely honored. The district did not relocate her. I am sure the district's lawyers argued that this was not an adverse action because the denial did not affect the terms and conditions of her employment, and teachers do not have the right to demand a transfer. But the Court of Appeals says the relocation denial qualifies as an adverse action because it would have dissuaded a reasonable teacher from complaining about discrimination again, as the relocation would have moved her away from co-workers who were causing her work-related stress. This is actually an interesting holding which might deserve further analysis, as I have not seen this before in a Second Circuit ruling.

4. The district court abused its discretion in rejecting plaintiff's request for additional discovery when she sought leave to depose the Vice Principal after he backed away from his initial willingness to sign an affidavit that plaintiff's counsel had prepared in opposition to the summary judgment motion; he was afraid to sign because he feared retaliation from the district and refused further contact with plaintiff's lawyer. The Veep instead signed an affidavit in support of the district's summary judgment motion. Of course, plaintiff says the affidavit that Vice signed had false information. The district court says plaintiff could have taken this guy's deposition in discovery, but the Court of Appeals says that's not a good reason to deny the request for a late deposition under the circumstances. The Second Circuit goes on to reason as follows:

Although the District Court concluded that the affidavits [in support of the application to reopen discovery] did not contain any explanation that justified Carter’s failure to depose Vice Principal Frazier during discovery, this finding is untenable in light of the detailed allegations contained in the affidavits. The affidavits establish that Carter did not depose Vice Principal Frazier at an earlier date during the discovery period because, up until the submission of Defendants’ reply brief, Carter was under the impression that Vice Principal Frazier was going to serve as a witness in support of her case, not Defendants’, and therefore she previously had no reason to depose her own witness. It therefore follows that she was not afforded a reasonable opportunity to obtain information within the control of Defendants. Moreover, the sworn affidavits also identify the potentially discoverable evidence that would raise a genuine issue of material fact as to Carter’s claims, thereby satisfying the requirements warranting additional limited discovery.
This is a fascinating holding that you never see in the Court of Appeals, which hates to get its fingers dirty in discovery disputes and will normally defer to the district court's judgment on these issues. Not this case.

 5. The case is sent back to the district court with additional instructions on how to give the plaintiff a fair shake on the next summary judgment motion. It notes that negative performance evaluations may in fact constitute adverse employment actions in certain circumstances. The Circuit also notes that there may be evidence of discriminatory motive because the Principal told plaintiff that white teachers, including the Principal himself, were intimidated by her because she is a "tall, Black, well-spoken, educated professional woman" and that this was happening to her because she is a "well-educated Black woman." You do not see blatant allegations like this very often in employment discrimination cases. Other teachers also made racist statements in plaintiff's presence; one said black students were fighting with each other because it was "cultural." I am sure the defendants deny making any such comments, but that is what trials are for, and that is why these cases go to mediation. Comments like this turn the case into a crapshoot. If the jury believes plaintiff, she wins the case.

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