64 Year-Old Gym Teacher Called 'Crazy' Can Advance Age-Based Harassment Claim

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By Anne A. Marchessault

A former physical education teacher with the New York City Department of Education can advance her age-based hostile work environment claim against the department, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York decided March 29 (Thomas v. New York City Dep't of Educ., E.D.N.Y., No. 1:10-cv-00464, 3/29/13).

Anna-Marie Thomas was plausibly subjected to harassment under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the court decided, because she alleged that the then-principal encouraged a teacher to engage in menacing conduct toward her and solicited students to claim she had made inappropriate statements.

The court found that Thomas failed to make a prima facie pre-amendment Americans with Disabilities Act hostile work environment claim, however, because officials did not know of her disability at the time of the allegedly harassing conduct.

Any treatment that occurred after her disability became more apparent was not objectively severe or pervasive, Judge Sandra L. Townes added. 

Tenured Teacher Taken Out of Classroom

Thomas began working with the DOE in 1973. She held licenses to teach physical education (including health) and to work as a secondary school guidance counselor.

In 2002, Thomas said the Brooklyn High School of the Arts (BHSA) “recruited” her from the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn.

According to Thomas, she began working at the BHSA on the condition that she “would be appointed as a guidance counselor as the need arose.”

BHSA instead appointed guidance counselors in their 20s and 30s for the next three years.

In October 2006, BHSA assigned Thomas to “team-teach” a physical education class with Daniel Paradis. Paradis was about 30 years old at the time.

On Dec. 4, 2006, Thomas retrieved gym equipment from a common-use room. Paradis later approached her, called her “crazy,” and shouted that she took the equipment from “his office.”

Thomas said Paradis's “menacing tirade would have resulted in aggravated assault,” if the school dean had not stepped in to stop him.

Thomas reported the incident to then-Principal Robert Finley and Assistant Principal John Reedy. She requested that they admonish Paradis for his conduct, but Finley and Reedy did not take any action.

According to Thomas, Finley's inaction “emboldened” Paradis, and she then experienced an “all-encompassing pervasive hostile work environment that she found intolerable.”

Finley then reassigned Thomas to a teacher reassignment center (TRC) Nov. 19, 2007, pending investigation into allegations made against her.

He requested that Thomas be evaluated by a DOE staff psychiatrist. Attached to the request were statements from six students claiming that Thomas had made inappropriate comments in class Nov. 1, 2007.

Thomas denied making the comments.

As Thomas pointed out, two of the statements were made by students not enrolled in her class, and the other four statements were made by students who had just received failing grades from her.

Although the psychiatrist found Thomas to be fit for duty, she remained in the TRC and did not find out about the charges against her until June 18, 2008.

During a hearing on Thomas's case, Finley produced transcripts showing that the four students whom Thomas had said she failed were actually passing.

Thomas claimed that Finley changed the grades, either in return for their making the statements or to show that they had no motive to retaliate against her.

The DOE cleared Thomas of all charges July 13.

In her complaint, Thomas alleged that “the Kafkaesque nature of the ordeal of the reassignment followed by the psychiatric evaluation” was “destabilizing” and made her feel that “suddenly her life could be … upended.”

In addition, although Thomas was limping for at least a year before she entered the TRC, her mobility decreased dramatically while at the center. She eventually had hip replacement surgery.

According to Thomas, then-DOE Chancellor Joel I. Klein was responsible for the disciplinary charges against her. Klein allegedly stated that the DOE needed “new blood” and must “clean house of the old ways” and teachers “wedded to old methods.”

Thomas said these statements were “signals to purge the system of veteran tenured teachers at the top of the pay scale.”

When Thomas was returned to active service at BHSA Sept. 8, 2009, she experienced conflict with the new principal, Margaret Lacey-Berman.

Although Thomas should have been given her preferred assignment as the most senior teacher at BHSA, Lacey-Berman first assigned her to answer the telephones and then to teach two yoga classes. The medical bureau denied Thomas's clearance for the yoga classes because of her recent hip replacement surgery.

Lacey-Berman eventually placed Thomas on unpaid leave Nov. 19.

Thomas filed suit against the DOE and individual officials Feb. 3, 2010. She alleged, among other things, hostile work environment under the ADEA and ADA.

She was 64 years old at the time.

The department defendants moved to dismiss. 

'Clean House' Comment Showed Age Bias

The court found that Thomas stated a plausible ADEA hostile work environment claim against the DOE.

To establish her ADEA case, the court explained, Thomas needed to show that the conduct was objectively severe or pervasive, created an environment that she subjectively perceived as hostile or abusive, and was based on her age.

Thomas's complaint alleged that Klein stated that the DOE needed “new blood” and must “clean house of the old ways” and teachers “wedded to old methods.”

She said Finley thus encouraged Paradis to harass her, in accordance with Klein's wishes.

“The acquiescence that BHSA administration displayed toward Defendant Paradis behavior, made Plaintiff suspect that there came a time when Defendant Paradis was being encouraged to create the hostile work environment so as to harass Plaintiff,” Thomas said in her complaint.

BHSA took no action against Paradis after he nearly attacked Thomas, Thomas added.

Thomas alleged that Finley also agreed to change students' grades to obtain their assistance in fabricating a charge against her.

Finley's actions resulted in Thomas's reassignment to the TRC where, as she alleged, “conditions are intentionally made to induce constructive termination.”

“Although the Complaint does not allege many facts in support of this hostile work environment claim, the claim is not entirely speculative,” the court concluded. 

Derogatory Behavior Not Disability Based

“In contrast,” Townes wrote, “this Court largely concurs with defendants' arguments relating to the hostile work environment claim under the ADA.”

The court found that Thomas's ADA claim failed because she nowhere alleged facts suggesting that Finley or Paradis's actions related to her disability.

Thomas exhibited no signs of a disability until she developed a “slight limp” a month after her tensions with Paradis began, the court noted.

As Townes said, “there is nothing in the Complaint to suggest that Finley, Paradis or any of the students at BHSA noticed this limp or inferred from it that Plaintiff was disabled during the time that they allegedly orchestrated her transfer to the TRC.”

“Moreover, while the Complaint alleges that the behavior of the DOE personnel at the TRC was 'different from the behavior toward other teachers,' ” she added, “it does not allege that she was treated worse than other teachers because of her disability.”

Although Lacey-Berman and Reedy knew of Thomas's disability upon her return to BHSA in September 2009, the court found that Thomas failed to allege that either administrator subjected her to an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.

The court found that Thomas also plausibly alleged prima facie cases of discrimination under the ADEA and ADA based on her reassignment to the TRC and placement on unpaid leave.

Ambrose W. Wotorson Jr. in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Joy Hochstadt in New York represented Thomas. Maxwell D. Leighton of the New York City Law Department represented the DOE.

Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Thomas_Ed_D_v_New_York_City_Department_of_Education_et_al_Docket_.

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