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Sweeney v. Enfield Board of Education

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 18, 2016

SEAN SWEENEY, Plaintiff,
v.
ENFIELD BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff Sean Sweeney, a high school teacher, brought this action against the Enfield Board of Education (“EBE”). The EBE now moves for summary judgment on the only remaining claim: that the EBE violated Sweeney’s substantive and procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by suspending him from his employment, including a 20-day suspension without pay (Count Two), following an inquiry into whether he had made inappropriate remarks to students.[1] (ECF No. 30.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS the EBE’s motion for summary judgment.

         I. Factual Background[2]

         Since August 2001, Sweeney has been employed by the EBE as a tenured high school social studies teacher at Fermi High School. (Defendant’s Local Rule 56(a)1 Statement, ECF No. 33 (“Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt.”) ¶¶ 1-3; Plaintiff’s Local Rule 56(a)2 Statement, ECF No. 39 (“Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt.”) ¶¶ 1-3.) Sweeney is a member of the Enfield Teacher’s Association (“ETA”) and subject to the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the ETA and the EBE. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 4; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 4.) The CBA provides that “No teacher shall be suspended . . . without just cause. A teacher suspended . . . as a disciplinary matter shall receive advanced notice of the suspension . . . and shall be entitled to receive a specific statement of reasons in writing and have representation from the [ETA].” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 5 (citations omitted); Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 5.) The CBA also contains a four-step grievance procedure. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 6-7; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 6-7.) Level One of the grievance procedure “is to the Principal or immediate supervisor; Level Two is to the Superintendent; Level Three is to the Board; and Level Four is to an Impartial Arbitration conducted by the American Arbitration Association, the decision of which is binding.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 7; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 7.) Only the ETA may bring a grievance to impartial arbitration at Level Four. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 8; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 8.)

         A. Earlier Incidents

         Sweeney admits that the EBE subjected him to discipline in two instances prior to the instance that triggered this lawsuit (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 9), but he generally denies the conduct that the EBE attributes to him that resulted in the two prior instances of discipline. (Id. ¶¶ 11-13.) According to the EBE, in 2012 Student A reported to his guidance counselor that when another student asked Student A “how’s your face, ” Sweeney stated, “well, it’s killing me.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 12.) Student A later gave a statement confirming that Sweeney made this comment. (Id. ¶ 13.) According to the EBE, when school administrators asked, Sweeney neither confirmed nor denied making the statement to Student A and admitted that he used profanity in his classroom. (Id. ¶ 14.) Sweeney, however, denies ever making such a statement to Student A, states that “Defendant has not produced the statement that is referred to, ” and denies that he used profanity. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 12-14 (citing Sweeney Aff. ¶ 5).) Sweeney says that it was his co-teacher, the now-retired Kenneth Lessard, who said “well, it’s killing me.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 15; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 15.)

         The EBE states that someone complained to school administrators that Sweeney had referred to Student B, who is African American, as his “black brother” and his “brother from another mother.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 16.) Sweeney denies that there was ever such a complaint, as he never received notice of one. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 16.) Sweeney admits that he called Student B his “black brother” and that Student B called Sweeney his “white brother” and his “brother from another mother.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 17-18; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 17-18.) Sweeney denies that he ever agreed with school administrators that his comments to Student B were inappropriate and denies that he ever apologized for the events involving Student A and Student B. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶19-20; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 19-20.) Sweeney admits that he “expressed regret that his actions were misconstrued” and that school administrators issued him a letter of discipline as a result of the incidents involving Students A and B. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶20-21; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 20-21.) Sweeney “did not grieve this letter of discipline.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 22; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 22.)

         In March of 2013, Sweeney was the girls’ softball coach, and Student C was on the junior varsity softball team. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 24-26; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 24-26.) During that month, school administrators received a complaint from the mother of Student C regarding a text message that Sweeney had sent to Student C. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 23; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 23.) Sweeney admits that, on November 30, 2012, at 3:47 p.m., he sent a text to Student C on her mother’s cell phone that stated: “Sing along... foreeeeeverrr aloooone..foreeeeeverrr aloooooone.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 30; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 30.) The EBE states that the phrase “forever to be alone” was used by students to refer to unattractive girls and boys and indicated that they would never find a partner. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 29.) Sweeney denies this. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 29.) He asserts that the “text was sent as a joke in response to several texts sent by the student” to him and that “[t]he message was sent in reference to a comment made by several of the girls that . . . Sweeney was also part of the ‘Forever Alone Club.’” (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 30.) Defendant states that Student C’s mother discovered the message on March 26, 2013, and reported it to the Defendant. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 ¶ 32.) Sweeney denies that it was possible that the mother could have discovered the message on March 26, 2013, because the message was sent on November 30, 2012. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 31.) Sweeney admits that school administrators placed him on paid administrative leave, effective March 26, 2013, pending investigation into the allegations surrounding his text message to Student C, and that his duties as softball coach were suspended during that time. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 33-34; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 33-34.) Sweeney denies that an investigation was ever conducted, but admits that Christopher Drezek, Deputy Superintendent of Enfield Public Schools (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 111; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 111), interviewed him regarding the text message. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 35-36; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 35-36.) Sweeney also admits that he was suspended for five days without pay as a result of this incident and did not grieve the discipline. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 40-41; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 40-41.)

         B. Incident of June 12, 2013

         Sweeney admits that, on June 11, 2013, six boys- AK., A.C., J.J. C.C., A.M., and N.K.-left trash underneath their lunch table and Sweeney cleaned it up. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 42; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 42.) The EBE asserts that, according to “reports, ” Sweeney approached the five boys on June 12, 2013, “called himself and the boys ‘dumb asses, ’ and told them that if they did not clean up that day, June 12, 2013, someone would be ‘dead.’” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 43.) Sweeney denies this account. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 43.) Sweeney admits that “A.K. reported [that Sweeney made] this [statement] to his parents, and his father, T.K., sent an email to Marilyn Cressotti, the Assistant Principal of Fermi, that afternoon, June 12, 2013, ” and after receiving the e-mail “Cressotti contacted T.K. and set up a meeting . . . with him the following morning, June 13, 2013 at 9:00 a.m.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 44-45; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 44-45.)[3] During the meeting, A.K. wrote out the statement that Sweeney had said to him the prior day as: “You guys left the lunch table a mess. I was the dumb ass who cleaned it up. Maybe today you can act like 6 y[ear] o[lds] instead of 5 y[ear] o[lds]. If you dumb asses leave the table dirty again someone will be dead tomorrow.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 47.) Sweeney denies this because it is “not what [he] said” (Sweeney Aff. ¶ 21), but he does not cite admissible evidence that contradicts Defendant’s assertion that A.K. wrote out such a statement. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 47.)[4]

         C. Initial Inquiry By School Officials

         Cressotti met with A.C., J.J., C.C., A.M, and N.K. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 48; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 48.)[5] A.C. reported that Sweeney had said: “There were papers on the floor and you know who picked them up? Not the lunch ladies, not the janitors-me. If I find papers on the floor again, you guys are dead.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 49.) “J.J reported only that the ‘lunch guy’ came over and told them to pick up their trash.” (Id. ¶ 50.) C.C. reported that Sweeney said, “If I find any more papers under that table today you guys are dead. This dumbass is who picked it up.” (Id. ¶ 51.) A.M. could not recall anything from the incident. (Id. ¶ 52.) N.K reported that Sweeney said, “If I have to pick this up again you will be dead or my sorry ass will be picking them up.” (Id. ¶ 53.) N.K. and C.C. provided written statements similar to their oral statements. (Id. ¶¶ 51-53.) Sweeney denies the students’ versions of events. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 49-53 (citing Sweeney Aff. ¶¶ 22-24).)[6]

         On June 13, 2013, Cressotti spoke to physical education teacher Mark Dube, who has lunch duty at the same time as Sweeney. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 54; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 54.) Dube reported that he had spoken with the boys that day, June 13, and that the boys had said that Sweeney had “threatened” them. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 56.) Sweeney denies ever threatening the students. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 55-56.)[7]

         Cressotti also spoke to Sweeney on June 13, 2013, in the cafeteria during his lunch duty, and later that day in her office. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 57-59; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 57-59.) Sweeney told Cressotti that on June 11, 2013, the boys had left trash at their table and he had discussed it with them during lunch on June 12. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 60; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 60.) According to Sweeney, he approached the boys at their lunch table and said, “Listen you guys, you left a mess at lunch. You know who picked it up? Me. I was the dummy that picked it up. It’s not the lunch ladies’ job or the custodians’ job. You are going to get me killed by the lunch ladies. If you don’t pick up the trash you will go to the office.” (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 62; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 62.) Sweeney said that he did not swear at the kids.[8](Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 61; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 61.)

         On June 14, 2013, T.K. sent another e-mail-this time to Drezek-complaining about this incident involving his son and Sweeney. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 64.) Sweeney denies the truth of the statements in the e-mail. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 64.)[9] Drezek reported the matter to the Enfield Police Department and the Department of Children and Family Services. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 65; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 65.)

         D. June 14, 2013 Meeting with Sweeney and Further Inquiry

         On June 14, 2013, Drezek and Newton met with Sweeney and ETA representative Tod Couture and explained that they were investigating a parent’s complaint about the events of June 12, 2013. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 66-68; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 66-68.) The EBE states that, during this meeting, Sweeney was given a chance to provide his side of the story. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 69.) Sweeney admits that, at the meeting he: (1) recounted his version of the story, (2) denied that he had used the word “dumb ass” or stated that “someone will be dead tomorrow.” (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 70-72.) In his deposition, Sweeney testified that as of the end of the June 14 meeting, he had told Cressotti and Drezek all that had occurred at the cafeteria on the day in question. (Sweeney Depo. at 147, 171, 176, ECF No. 38-2 at 24, 46, 63.)[10] At the end of the meeting, Sweeney was placed on paid administrative leave. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 74; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 74.)

         Drezek interviewed Dube (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 76-77; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 76-77), and obtained written statements from C.C. and N.K. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 81.) Sweeney denies that written statements were taken from C.C. and N.K., denies that they are accurate, and claims that the statements are inadmissible hearsay. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 81.) Sweeney’s hearsay objections are overruled because the statements are not offered for their truth. (See footnote 4, supra.) Based on this investigation, “it was determined that” Sweeney had used the phrase “dumb ass” and stated that “someone would be dead” in his conversation with the boys at lunch. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 82.) Sweeney denies this statement as lacking foundation and because he denies that he said such things, but he cites no admissible evidence to rebut the statement that this determination was made. (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 82.)

         Sweeney retained an attorney in August 2013 and declined representation by the ETA. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 86; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 86.) The school year ended on June 24, 2013, and Sweeney remained on paid administrative leave until September 2013. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 83-84; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 83-84.) At some point, the EBE offered Sweeney a “last chance agreement” and a 20-day suspension, which Sweeney declined. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶85; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 85.)

         E. October 4, 2013 Meeting with Sweeney and Suspension Without Pay

         Sweeney received notice from Drezek that there would be a meeting on October 4, 2013, to discuss his employment and the results of the investigation, and Sweeney attended the meeting. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶¶ 88-90; Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶¶ 88-90.) The EBE states that Sweeney was given the opportunity at the meeting to provide information relating to the allegations. (Def.’s L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 91.) Sweeney denies that he was given such an opportunity and states that “Drezek was in the process of finishing the typing of the disciplinary letter when the meeting began so the decision had already been made.” (Pl.’s L.R. 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 91.) At the meeting, administrators informed Sweeney he was being suspended for ...


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