Retaliation Claim Dismissal Affirmed; 3020-a Hearing’s Factual Findings Given Preclusive Effect

In Garcia v. Yonkers Board of Education, 2020 WL 747916 (2d Cir. Feb. 14, 2020) (Summary Order), the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s retaliation claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. Specifically, plaintiff alleged that she was brought up on disciplinary charges and fired for complaining about sexual harassment.

This decision is instructive as to how courts consider determinations/findings made by/in New York Education Law section 3020-a proceedings. (In sum, Education Law 3020-a outlines the process that school districts are required to take to discipline tenured teachers.)

The court explained:

The district court properly gave preclusive effect to the N.Y Education Law § 3020-a hearing officer’s findings of fact related to Garcia’s classroom behavior and failure to report for duty for an entire school year. Factual findings made in a state administrative proceeding are entitled to preclusive effect where there has been a full and fair opportunity to litigate. [A] determination whether a full and fair hearing was provided requires consideration of the realities of the [prior] litigation. We consider, inter alia, the following factors: 1) the nature of the forum and the importance of the claim in the prior litigation; 2) the incentive to litigate and the actual extent of litigation in the prior forum; and 3) the foreseeability of future litigation.

Garcia was afforded a full and fair opportunity to litigate. The 3020-a hearing was a formal evidentiary hearing at which the hearing officer explained the process. Garcia was given an opportunity to testify, present evidence, and cross-examine YBOE’s witnesses. Further, the hearing concerned whether Garcia would be fired and played a significant role in the decision to terminate her. Prior to the hearing, YBOE sent her a packet with a notice that explained her rights at the hearing, including the right to be represented by counsel. The hearing officer also sent Garcia three letters stating she had the right to be represented by counsel during the proceedings. Garcia was also aware she had the ability to request union representation, and she wrote to both her local union and New York State United Teachers requesting legal representation; both declined to represent her.

Garcia also argues that the hearing officer’s factual findings should not have received preclusive effect because the hearing did not address the sexual harassment incidents or her retaliation claim raised in the district court complaint. Garcia is correct that the hearing officer’s legal conclusion that Garcia should be terminated is not preclusive with respect to the legal merits of Garcia’s retaliation claim. … The factual findings, however, including the determinations that Garcia failed to report to work and told a student she would “smack” him, are entitled to preclusive effect. [Citations and internal quotation marks omitted.]

Turning to plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the court held that the district court “properly determined, based on the preclusive effect of the 3020-a hearing, that Garcia failed to demonstrate a triable issue of fact with respect to her retaliation claim.” While plaintiff was required to show – under Title VII – that retaliation was a “but-for” cause of the adverse action, she did not meet this standard.

Specifically:

Because the 3020-a factual findings were preclusive, Garcia was estopped from challenging the findings that she failed to report for work for the entire 2012-13 school year and told a student she would “smack him.” App’x at 89. Thus, YBOE offered legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for bringing the 3020-a charges. Garcia did not offer sufficient evidence showing that these reasons were pretextual, and, indeed, the hearing officer found, after a full hearing, that the reasons were valid. Accordingly, Garcia was precluded from denying the conduct that was the basis for her termination.

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