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Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

September 2, 2015

CARLOS VEGA, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
HEMPSTEAD UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT and CHY DAVIDSON and DAGOBERTO ARTILES (sued in their individual capacities pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983), Defendants-Appellees. [*]

Submitted February 25, 2015.

As Amended September 15, 2015.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Feuerstein, J.) dismissing plaintiff-appellant's employment discrimination and retaliation claims. The district court granted defendants-appellees" motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding that (1) certain claims were time-barred, (2) claims of retaliation for complaining of discrimination are not actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (3) plaintiff-appellant had not " demonstrated that he suffered an adverse employment action" and therefore he had not " established a prima facie case of discrimination," and (4) plaintiff-appellant had failed, with respect to his retaliation claims, " to establish an adverse action taken against him" or " a connection between the alleged retaliatory acts and his ethnicity." .

ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK.

Kathleen A. Tirelli, Scott Michael Mishkin, P.C., Islandia, New York, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

David F. Kwee, Ingerman Smith, L.L.P., Hauppauge, New York, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: KATZMANN, Chief Judge, and WALKER and CHIN, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

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CHIN, Circuit Judge :

In this case, Carlos Vega, a high school math teacher in the Hempstead Union Free School District (the " District" ), brings discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (" Title VII" ), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the District and two principals, Chy Davidson and Dagoberto Artiles, in their individual capacities (collectively " Defendants" ). Vega alleges that Defendants discriminated against him because of his " Hispanic ethnicity" and that they retaliated against him after he complained of discrimination.

The district court (Feuerstein, J. ) granted Defendants" motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), concluding that (1) certain claims were time-barred, (2) claims of retaliation for complaining of discrimination

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are not actionable under § 1983, (3) Vega had not " demonstrated that he suffered an adverse employment action" and therefore he had not " established a prima facie case of discrimination," and (4) Vega had failed, with respect to his claims of retaliation, " to establish an adverse action taken against him" or " a connection between the alleged retaliatory acts and his ethnicity." We hold that: (1) certain of Vega's claims were not time-barred, as the district court had concluded; (2) retaliation claims are actionable under § 1983; (3) a Title VII plaintiff need not plead a prima facie case of discrimination to survive a motion to dismiss; and (4) Vega has sufficiently pleaded discrimination and retaliation claims. Accordingly, we vacate and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

A. The Facts

The facts alleged in the complaint are assumed to be true. See Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 572, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) ( " [A] judge ruling on a defendant's motion to dismiss a complaint must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint." (internal quotation marks omitted)). They may be summarized as follows:

The District operates seven elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school (the " High School" ) in Hempstead, New York. As of the filing of his complaint, Vega had taught math for twenty-four years, including the last sixteen years in the District at the High School. Vega is Hispanic, of Puerto Rican origin, and is fluent in both English and Spanish. Vega received tenure in the District in 1999, and for many years he received positive performance reviews and consistent pay increases.

Davidson was the principal at the High School from 2006 to 2011, and Artiles has been a principal at the High School since 2011. During their employment in the District, Davidson and Artiles were responsible for personnel decisions at the High School, including hiring, firing, evaluating, and disciplining employees.

1. The Alleged Discrimination

Beginning in 2008, the District took a number of actions that Vega contends were discriminatory:

o Beginning in 2008, Vega was assigned an " increased percentage of students that were Spanish speaking and were not fluent in English," requiring Vega to do " twice as much work" in preparing and teaching his classes first in English and then in Spanish, without extra compensation. App. at 11" 12.[1]
o When he complained later in 2008, Vega was assigned " a mixture of bilingual classes and English classes, instead of all bilingual," and he was still not compensated for the extra preparation time. Id. at 12.
o Vega was unable to use his regular classroom for his first period class in October 2010 and had to teach in the " excessively noisy" media center without a blackboard. Id.
o Vega was assigned a classroom with a " University of Puerto Rico" banner above the door. Id. at 14" 15.
o Vega attempted to enter his students" grades into the school's computer system in October 2011, but his password

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had been deactivated. Vega had to use his non-Hispanic colleague's password to log into the computer system to enter his grades.

o The District twice attempted to transfer Vega out of the High School:
○ First, on June 24, 2011, Davidson attempted to transfer Vega to the District's middle school. On July 11, 2011, Vega objected to Davidson's proposed transfer and told the Assistant Superintendent that he should not be transferred because he had a better percentage of passing students than most of his co-workers. On September 21, 2011, the District rescinded the transfer and Vega continued teaching at the High School.
○ Second, on June 18, 2012, Vega received a letter from the District approving his transfer to the Academy of Math and Sciences " " whose principal is Hispanic " " even though he had never requested this transfer. Vega was never transferred.

Vega alleges that his non-Hispanic colleagues were not subjected to such actions.

2. The Alleged Retaliation

On August 8, 2011, Vega filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the " EEOC" ), alleging that the District had discriminated against him based on his ethnicity in violation of Title VII. Vega amended the charge twice, first on January 4, 2012 and then on July 2, 2012, adding further allegations of discrimination.

After Vega filed his initial charge, and, in some instances, the amended charges, Defendants engaged in a number of actions that Vega alleges were retaliatory:

o For the 2011" 12 school year, Vega " was assigned classes with students who [were] notoriously excessively absent." Id. at 16. Before 2011, consistently roughly 20% of Vega's students were excessively absent, but during the 2011" 12 school year, that number jumped to 75%. Chronic absence leads to poor student performance, which in turn reflects poorly on a teacher's performance.
o The District changed the curriculum for one of Vega's classes in November 2011. The District notified all non-Hispanic teachers of the curriculum change, but it did not notify Vega.
o On March 12, 2012, $738.92 was improperly deducted from Vega's paycheck for sick time, even though he had leftover sick time in his " sick day bank." Id. at 17. Vega complained to the District's Business Office, which acknowledged the mistake, and while he was repaid a portion of the deducted amount in September, he was never repaid the full amount that was due to him.
o In February 2013, Vega received his first negative performance review in his sixteen years teaching at the High School. Artiles observed Vega's classroom performance and gave him 1.4 out of a 4-point maximum in his review. Vega was held to a different evaluation process than his colleagues, and he was the only teacher to receive a negative performance score during the evaluation period.[2]

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B. Proceedings Below

On September 21, 2012, the EEOC dismissed Vega's charge and issued him a right to sue notice. Vega commenced this action below, filing a pro se complaint on December 14, 2012. With the assistance of counsel, he filed an amended complaint (the " Complaint" ) on April 3, 2013. The Complaint alleges discriminatory and retaliatory treatment in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Defendants moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings. On May 22, 2014, the district court granted Defendants" motion and dismissed the Complaint in its entirety. Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist., No. 12-CV-6158 (SJF), 2014 WL 2157536 (E.D.N.Y. May 22, 2014).

As an initial matter, in a footnote, the district court dismissed certain of Vega's claims " " without specifying which " " under both Title VII and § 1983 as time-barred. Id. at *2 n.1. The district court then addressed the discrimination claims against the District, concluding, after reviewing the three-part burden" shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973), that " [b]ecause plaintiff has not demonstrated that he suffered an adverse employment action, he has not established a prima facie case of discrimination and consequently, his Title VII and § 1983 claims against the District must fail." Vega, 2014 WL 2157536, at *6. Next, the district court dismissed the § 1983 claims against Davidson and Artiles, holding, with respect to Davidson, that Vega had not " established" an adverse employment action or that Davidson's conduct was " on account of [Vega's] ethnicity," Id. at *7, and, with respect to Artiles, that a retaliation claim could not be brought under the Fourteenth Amendment (or § 1983) when the protected activity involved race discrimination, [WL] at *8.[3] Finally, the district court dismissed the Title VII retaliation claims ...


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