Teacher May Continue Sexual Orientation Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

In Sandiford v. City of New York Dept. of Education the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) yesterday, Oct. 17, 2013, affirmed the Appellate Division’s order permitting plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation claims under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws to proceed.

The Court of Appeals decision is rather terse; for a fuller description of the unfortunate facts underlying this case, reference should be made to the Appellate Division decision or the trial court decision (which the Appellate Division modified).

In sum, plaintiff Ayodele Sandiford is a lesbian and was employed as a school aide by the Department of Education. She alleged that, while assigned to P.S. 181 in Brooklyn, the principal, Coleman, “repeatedly made derogatory remarks regarding gays and lesbians in front of plaintiff, the students and the teachers.”

Specifically, according to the Appellate Division’s April 24, 2012 opinion:

Plaintiff stated that Coleman had commented that “two men should not be behind closed doors,” “whatever two men is [sic] doing behind closed door[s], God would judge them for himself.” Plaintiff also stated that Coleman had said that “his church can change people like us for the better” and, while acting out an obscene walk, “this is how faggots walk.” On another occasion, Coleman allegedly admonished students for using the word “lesbian.” Plaintiff claimed that she complained about certain staff members who had teased her, taunted her with notes in her locker and made lewd comments to her.

In March 2005 plaintiff was told that she was being suspended without pay pending a DOE investigation into an alleged incident of sexual misconduct in which plaintiff asked a DOE student to “hook her up” with a college student who worked at the school.

Plaintiff complained about the principal’s conduct to various DOE offices, but nothing was done.  When plaintiff met with the principal she was allegedly “berated, belittled and reprimanded” for complaining about his treatment. Plaintiff was then told that the investigation substantiated the misconduct allegations, and that the principal had decided to fire her.

Plaintiff filed a grievance with DOE challenging her termination.  She was reinstated with back pay (less two weeks), and a letter was placed in her file “warning her not to engage in inappropriate conduct or conversation with any DOE student.”

Plaintiff then sued.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Appellate Division that plaintiff introduced sufficient evidence to withstand defendants’ motion to dismiss her discrimination and retaliation claims under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws.

It reasoned:

Triable issues of fact exist as to whether the principal’s stated reason for terminating plaintiff was “merely a pretext for discrimination”, and whether, absent a discriminatory motive, the referral of plaintiff to the Office of Special Investigation and the principal’s subsequent decision to terminate plaintiff would have occurred. Defendants are of course correct that evidence only that the principal made stray discriminatory comments without any basis for inferring a connection to the termination would be insufficient to defeat defendants’ motion. … But that is not the case here. Plaintiff has offered evidence of, among other things: defendant principal’s repeated homophobic remarks directed at plaintiff; his decision to report to the Department of Education (DOE) allegations that plaintiff had engaged in misconduct while working at an after-school program that he did not supervise; his close relationship with the alleged victims of the misconduct; his independent decision to terminate plaintiff’s employment; and the after-school program supervisor’s opinion that plaintiff had not engaged in any misconduct worthy of reporting to the DOE. This is sufficient to deny defendants’ motion for summary dismissal.

It also held that there are triable issues of fact as to whether “the principal retaliated against plaintiff for complaining to the DOE about his treatment of her.”

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