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Brown v. Waterbury Board of Education

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 11, 2016

ERIK BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
WATERBURY BOARD OF EDUCATION and DR. KATHLEEN OUELLETTE, in her individual capacity, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

The plaintiff, Erik Brown, has sued the defendants, Waterbury Board of Education ("Board") and Dr. Kathleen Ouellette in her individual capacity, because the defendants allegedly demoted the plaintiff from his position as principal of Walsh Elementary School on account of his race. The plaintiff filed a six-count Amended Complaint on August 3, 2015. In Count One, the plaintiff asserted a race discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the Board. In Count Two, the plaintiff asserted a race discrimination claim under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 against Dr. Ouellette in her individual capacity. In Count Three, the plaintiff asserted a retaliation claim under Title VII against the Board. In Count Four, the plaintiff asserted a state-law defamation claim against the Board and Dr. Ouellette. In Count Five, the plaintiff asserted an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against the Board and Dr. Ouellette. The Amended Complaint also included a § 1983 claim (referred to as “Count Three (A)")[1] against Dr. Ouellette in her individual capacity based on an alleged Fourteenth Amendment due process violation.

The defendants move to dismiss Counts Two, Three, Four, Five, and Three (A) of the plaintiffs Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons discussed below, the defendants‘ Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The plaintiff has stated a claim in Counts Two, Three and Three (A), but has failed to state a claim in Counts Four and Five. The following claims remain: Count One, Count Two, Count Three, and Count Three (A).

I. Factual Allegations

The Amended Complaint alleges the following facts. The plaintiff, Erik Brown, an African-American, was the principal of Walsh Elementary School ("Walsh") for almost eight years. (ECF No. 17 at ¶ 3.) The defendant, Dr. Kathleen M. Ouellette, who is white, was the Superintendent of Schools for the Board. (Id. at ¶ 5.)

The plaintiff was a " hands-on" principal who took pride in Walsh and its students. (Id. at ¶ 25.) His goal always had been to improve Walsh‘s academic scores, and he welcomed input and suggestions from his staff to help achieve his goal. (Id. at ¶ 9.) Walsh is in a blighted neighborhood, but the plaintiff took pride in his building and " went out of his way" to ensure that the premises were well maintained. (Id. at ¶ 15.) He oversaw the development of a modern library and made sure that Smart Boards were available in almost every classroom. (Id.) The plaintiff also instituted daily assemblies " to foster a community-type gathering for staff and students" in an attempt to create " a safe and positive school environment." (Id. at ¶ 10.) He knew most of the children by name, and promoted a " familial feeling" at the school. (Id. at ¶ 16.) Students under the plaintiffs supervision were well behaved and suspensions declined dramatically during his tenure. (Id.) Walsh was labeled a " turnaround" school by the Board, but was not scheduled to receive additional state funding until the 2013-14 fiscal year. (Id. at ¶ 13.) This led the plaintiff to cultivate a relationship with the Department of Children and Families ("DCF"). (Id. at ¶ 14.)

With the help of DCF, the plaintiff developed a " support team, " which hosts an annual fair that provides over fifteen-hundred residents with medical care, housing, clothing, food, and after-school educational support. (Id.) The plaintiff also tried to establish a Literacy Academy at Walsh, but lacked adequate resources. (Id. at ¶ 20.)

Despite the improvements Walsh had made under the plaintiffs supervision, the defendants held a meeting near the summer of 2012 where they decided to make changes to Walsh‘s educational mission and system. (Id. at 13, ¶ 33.)[2] During this meeting, the plaintiff was informed that he might be transferred to another school district due to Walsh‘s low test scores. (Id. at 13, ¶ 34.) In response, the plaintiff called an open meeting with the Walsh community to discuss his possible departure and the proposed changes at Walsh. (Id. at 13, ¶ 35.) About eighty members of the Walsh community, including staff and parents, attended the meeting. (Id.) Dr. Ouellette also attended. (Id.)

Most of the teachers at Walsh blamed the plaintiff for the low level of student achievement. (Id. at ¶ 20.) The plaintiff was " accused of being insubordinate for not establishing a [so-called] ‗Comer school‘[3] and for not having a ‗Professional Learning Community‘" even though the plaintiff did not have the autonomy or resources to implement either model in a comprehensive fashion. (Id. at ¶ 27.) The plaintiff worked " to obtain the academic, staffing and financial assistance Walsh needed to improve, " but the defendants would not help him. (Id. at ¶ 24.) Instead he was targeted as a scapegoat for the school‘s problems. (Id.)

On March 22, 2013, following the completion of a state audit report, the plaintiff was placed on paid administrative leave (id. at ¶ 7), pending an investigation by an outside attorney hired by Dr. Ouellette into whether the plaintiff had created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at Walsh, (id. at 10, ¶ 35). The plaintiff alleges that he has never threatened any of his staff. (Id. at ¶ 8.) He also alleges that no grievances had been filed against him and his evaluations had been exemplary until he was placed on administrative leave. (Id.) None of his evaluations contained any specific recommendation or suggestion that he should improve his relations or communication with staff. (Id.) In response to his placement on administrative leave, the plaintiff filed complaints with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities ("CHRO") and the United States Equal Employment Opportunities Commission ("EEOC") alleging discrimination by the defendants on account of his race. (Id. at ¶ 31.)

The investigation of the audit report allegations concluded that the plaintiff was " unfit to continue as Walsh‘s Principal . . . and that some remedial action had to immediately be taken." (Id. at 12, ¶ 36.) On July 26, 2013, the plaintiff was demoted to assistant principal at Kingsbury Elementary School with a lower salary. (Id. at ¶ 21.) Two other principals in the school district, who were white, had faced similar accusations of intimidation and bullying, but were never placed on administrative leave or demoted like the plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 28.)

The plaintiff alleges that he was treated in a discriminatory and retaliatory manner because of his race. (Id. at ¶ 30.) Dr. Ouellette in particular constantly harassed the plaintiff, and responded to the plaintiff‘s concerns with a cavalier attitude. (Id. at 10, ¶ 38.) She generally communicated with the plaintiff in a sarcastic, condescending, and demeaning manner. (Id.)

The audit report containing the allegations regarding the plaintiff and the results of the subsequent investigation of that report were released to a local newspaper (id. at ¶ 22), and details of the plaintiff‘s placement on administrative leave were released to a local television news station, NBC Connecticut ("NBC30") (id. at 16, ¶ 34). As a result, NBC30 reported that the plaintiff was, " accused of singling people out, and chastising them in front of the group if they weren‘t participating in an activity." (Id. at 16, ¶ 35.) This humiliated the plaintiff and damaged his professional reputation (id. at 15, ¶ 33) so that he may never again work as a school principal (id. at 16, ¶ 37).

Since being demoted and having personal details of his demotion released to the public, the plaintiff has been seeing a counselor for emotional problems and distress. (Id. at 16, ¶ 33.) The defendants‘ conduct caused the plaintiff severe emotional distress, money problems, family problems, a decrease in self-esteem and self-worth, and a loss of sleep, appetite, and employment. (Id. at 17, ¶ 36.)

II. Legal Standard

For a complaint to survive a motion to dismiss brought under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), it must, " contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). " The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‗probability requirement, ‘ but asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual ...


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