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Boutillier v. Hartford Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 17, 2016




         In this action, plaintiff Lisa Boutillier alleges that defendant Hartford Public Schools discriminated and retaliated against her based on her sexual orientation and physical disability in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”) (Counts I-III); discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation in violation of Title VII (Count IV); discriminated against her based on her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended (Count V); and constructively discharged her in violation of Connecticut law (Count VI).

         Defendant has moved for summary judgment on all claims. For the following reasons, defendant's motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


         The following facts are gleaned from the parties' statements of fact, affidavits, deposition transcripts, and other exhibit documentation.

         Plaintiff commenced employment with the Hartford Board of Education at the Noah Webster Microsociety Magnet School (“Noah Webster”) at the start of the 2006-2007 school year. She was recommended for hire to a sixth grade mathematics position by then principal Dee Cole. Within a few days of starting, plaintiff was moved to a fourth grade position. Days later, plaintiff was again moved to a kindergarten position, where she taught during the 2006-2007 school year. Cole was plaintiff's direct supervisor.

         Cole also recommended plaintiff's spouse, Ginene Branch, for hire at Noah Webster.

         On the last day of staff development before the 2006-2007 school year began, Cole informed plaintiff that Noah Webster was overstaffed. Cole gave Branch and plaintiff the choice as to which one wanted to stay at Noah Webster and which one wanted to move to a fourth grade science position at Hooker Elementary School. Plaintiff contends that Cole called plaintiff and Branch into her office with both of their resumes in front of her and saw that they went to the same art school, moved together, and taught at the same schools for almost 30 years, implicating Cole's knowledge of their relationship. Cole admits that it was unusual to allow two teachers to decide between themselves who would stay and who would go. Moreover, plaintiff asserts that it was well known among staff and parents at Noah Webster that she was gay and that Branch and plaintiff were a couple. When asked at deposition about knowledge of plaintiff's relationship with Branch, Cole responded: “I never learned that. I didn't know that. That was never part of any knowledge that I knew, nor did I care to know.” However, vice principal Vernice Duke, who worked alongside Cole for three years, stated in October 2012 that, “[plaintiff's] relationship with Ginene is not a problem and is known to everyone at the school. This has not been an issue with her peers nor with administration.”

         Branch chose to move to Hooker, and plaintiff stayed at Noah Webster. Plaintiff asserts that Cole told Branch that she would have first rights to return to Noah Webster when a position became available, but Cole maintains that she merely told Branch that she was welcome to apply for future available positions.

         Plaintiff spoke to her union representative, Sue Frazer, concerned that she had been “outed” as gay by another teacher. Plaintiff asserts that Frazer warned her to ‘watch her back.' Shortly after Branch left the school, a position opened at Noah Webster. When plaintiff approached Cole about the possibility of Branch filling the position, plaintiff alleges that Cole became very angry and stated, “Don't you tell me who to hire.” Cole disputes making an agreement for Branch's return and testified, “That's not how it works anyway.” Branch never returned to Noah Webster.

         Plaintiff contends that Cole knew she was gay at the start of the 2006-2007 school year. At the end of that year, Cole rated plaintiff as “excellent” in her evaluation. Nevertheless, plaintiff maintains that Cole's treatment of her caused her to stop speaking at staff meetings. Another teacher's statement, taken as part of a subsequent internal investigation, corroborates plaintiff's perception of abrupt treatment at staff meetings.

         For the 2007-2008 school year, plaintiff moved to teaching first grade. Plaintiff questioned the placement of a difficult student in her classroom because she had endured a similarly difficult student in her classroom the year before. Plaintiff asserts that Cole became angry and berated plaintiff in front of other staff.

         Plaintiff alleges that when parents were upset that the bulk of behavioral problem students were placed in plaintiff's classroom, Cole accused her of improperly communicating to parents about other students' behavioral problems. Plaintiff denied sharing information and reported that the concerned parents were “room mothers” who were regularly present in the classroom. Cole allegedly announced to plaintiff that, “If you do anything that I consider to be unprofessional, it will be grounds for immediate dismissal.”

         At a meeting among Cole, plaintiff, and union representative Sue Frazer, Cole allegedly stated, “[Plaintiff] is an outstanding educator and outstanding first grade teacher. This is personal.”

         Cole rated plaintiff as “competent, ” the second highest rating for the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years.

         During the 2008-2009 school year, plaintiff was given a verbal warning for sharing confidential student information with parents; plaintiff denies doing so and testified that she was falsely accused. Plaintiff alleges that in November 2008, Cole screamed at plaintiff and refused to hear her explanation after an incident involving a student who repeatedly hit plaintiff, leaving her badly bruised. Cole wrote up a warning document about the student, but plaintiff asserts that she did not see the document until she reviewed her personnel file years later.

         The parties disagree about how many times plaintiff applied for alternative positions during her tenure. She was not hired for any alternative positions to which she applied.

         Vernice Duke assumed the part-time assistant principal position and became plaintiff's evaluator at Noah Webster at the start of the 2009-2010 school year. Duke evaluated plaintiff as “competent” for the 2009-2010 school year and noted no areas of weakness in plaintiff's teaching. The evaluation did designate several areas for growth and improvement.

         Plaintiff alleges that during the summer of 2010, she and Branch encountered Duke, who upon seeing their wedding rings made a “nasty” face, indicative of disapproval. In response to this accusation, Duke stated that, “I had just gotten back from knee surgery. If I had any facial expressions not to their liking, it could have been from being in pain after having a knee replacement. I don't even think that to this date [October 23, 2012], I have even seen their wedding bands.”

         Defendant asserts that plaintiff was awarded tenure as of August 28, 2010, but plaintiff responds that despite the regular practice of notifying teachers in writing upon granting of tenure, she was never notified in writing and has no information on how or when tenure was awarded.

         Duke rated plaintiff as “competent” for the 2010-2011 school year.

         Plaintiff asserts that during a performance evaluation meeting she confronted and accused Duke of discriminating against her because of her sexual orientation. Duke denies this. Duke's statement, taken as part of the district's internal investigation, provides, “I have never had a conversation about [plaintiff's] sexual preferences with plaintiff.” Yet, remarkably, as part of that same statement, Duke provides:

[Plaintiff] said to me that she usually does not tell people about her situation. Then she went on to explain that her significant other was a female. This conversation took place during her second year of working with me. I said to her that this had nothing to do with the performance of her job and that she was entitled to a private life just [like] everyone else. To go even further, [plaintiff] introduced me to [her spouse, Branch, ] at some point.

         In August 2011, prior to the start of the school year, plaintiff suffered a medical issue that resulted in absence for the first half of the school year. Plaintiff contends that after notifying the district of her need for treatment for an embolism and a hysterectomy, Cole misled parents by telling them that plaintiff would not be returning to teach at Noah Webster, citing a “personnel matter” rather than informing the parents that plaintiff was on approved medical leave. A parent of one of plaintiff's students submitted an affidavit indicating the same. The parent was surprised to subsequently learn that plaintiff was ill, as from the parent's perspective, Cole had implied that there was a “disciplinary reason” for plaintiff's absence.

         During her absence, plaintiff alleges that Duke called her at home, demanding to know her medical status and what medications she was taking. Plaintiff proffers that after she complained to Elaine Bonfiglio in human resources, Duke's calls stopped, but plaintiff maintains that Duke chastised her about her plans to return to Noah Webster with the risk of falling ill in front of the students.

         Despite the fact that plaintiff's doctor only once extended plaintiff's medical leave, Cole complained at deposition that “plaintiff was coming back several times and didn't come back. . . . Again, coming back, not coming back, coming back, not coming back.”

         Teacher Jen Wight was reassigned from her resource position to take over plaintiff's classroom in plaintiff's absence. Plaintiff returned to work in January 2012. As some point prior to plaintiff's return, Wight also went on medical leave. Plaintiff protests that despite her seniority and despite the fact that the class was originally assigned to her, Wight was given priority upon return in January and remained in the first grade position for the remainder of the 2011-2012 school year. Plaintiff was assigned a resource reading position for first and second grade students. Plaintiff testified that upon her return, Cole's assistant, Iris Febles-Martinez, told plaintiff that she had been “replaced” by Cole and was therefore not entitled to receive teacher dollar cards and teaching supplies.

         Plaintiff contends that the resource reading position was created upon her return; it required her to create new curriculum and travel around the school even though plaintiff's doctor had notified Cole in writing that plaintiff “has been suffering from profound fatigue and decreased activity tolerance (ex: climbing one flight of stairs can cause her shortness of breath which requires a few minutes to recover).” The letter continues: “Though her medical conditions are gradually stabilizing, her activity level and endurance are very much limited but certainly improving-slowly.”

         On February 7, 2012, after an allegedly heated meeting with Duke, which concluded with Duke yelling at plaintiff to get her backpack out of Duke's sight, plaintiff collapsed to the ground and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

         Plaintiff requested and received 20 paid sick days from the teacher sick bank. On her request for sick bank leave she stated that she had collapsed due to “severe fatigue, exhaustion and syncope ... [which was] the direct result of the pulmonary embolism that I had developed in August 2011.”

         Plaintiff returned to work on March 12, 2012, in accordance with her medical clearance.

         Upon plaintiff's return to work on March 12, 2012, she was placed in a kindergarten classroom to cover for a teacher who was absent due to injury.

         On May 25, 2012, plaintiff had car trouble and called out for a personal day. Plaintiff contends that Duke called her at home demanding that she report to work. Plaintiff rented a car and drove to school. Plaintiff reported Duke's call to her union representative. Duke asserts that she called plaintiff at home out of mere courtesy to prevent plaintiff from missing out on her paycheck.

         On May 30, 2012, plaintiff requested permission from Duke to leave school grounds to run an errand at a nearby store. Duke granted plaintiff permission but reminded her of her obligation to “sign out.” A third party, Ms. Carreiro, was in Duke's office at the time and provided a statement about the incident, describing Duke's manner as abrupt with plaintiff to an extent that Carreiro became “very uncomfortable.” Carreiro also reported that Duke's unprofessional treatment of plaintiff was unique. The school's executive assistant later informed Duke that plaintiff neglected to sign out. Plaintiff testified that she decided to forgo the errand, as the school cafeteria stocked the item she sought. Nevertheless, Cole and Duke met with plaintiff that same afternoon. Plaintiff asserts that upon arrival to Cole's office, she was informed that she was to be disciplined for failure to sign out before leaving school grounds. She alleges that after she attempted to explain that she did not sign out because she did not leave the building, Cole and Duke began screaming at her. When plaintiff asked for a union representative, plaintiff contends that she was told to shut up and sit down. Defendant asserts that the primary purpose of the meeting was to inform plaintiff that she would be assigned, as requested, to teach second grade.

         Plaintiff became ill after the meeting. The school nurse contacted Duke to inform her of the medical emergency and called 911. The paramedics along with Duke and Cole met plaintiff in the school gymnasium. Plaintiff was transported from the school by ambulance. She did not return for the final weeks of the 2011-2012 school year.

         Plaintiff testified that neither her sister nor her spouse were informed of her medical emergency. Branch, plaintiff's spouse, affirmed the lack of notification. Nevertheless, Duke reported that “family members were contacted.” None have been identified. Cole claims that she purposefully waited for Branch to arrive at school after plaintiff was taken by the ambulance so that Branch could collect plaintiff's belongings, but no one asserts that Branch was ever summoned. Moreover, plaintiff contends that she was not notified by the school that she was apparently ineligible for health insurance benefits because of FMLA hours-worked requirements.

         After learning that her physician had been told that she was no longer employed and had no health insurance, plaintiff went to the human resources office, where she asserts that she was handed a letter explaining that her health insurance would expire on July 1, 2012. Branch then demanded that the district add plaintiff to her health benefits as her spouse. This request was granted. Plaintiff contends that defendant has failed to produce records as to its policy on eliminating health insurance for teachers out on medical leave.

         Plaintiff's primary care physician, Rashma Jhunja, MD, and psychologist, Marc J. Mann, PhD, began notifying the school district of the negative impacts on plaintiff's health due to the allegedly hostile work environment created by Cole and Duke. No evidence has been produced to suggest that the school district investigated the reports of hostile work environment as described by Dr. Jhunja or Dr. Mann.

         On June 21, 2012, subsequent to receiving a medical note for plaintiff's leave of absence, the district sent plaintiff a letter asking whether she was claiming to have a disability under the ADA or Connecticut law. The same day, defendant sent plaintiff a copy of the harassment policy and a harassment report form.

         On July 17, 2012, plaintiff filed an internal harassment complaint against Duke and Cole.

         On July 19, 2012, the district received medical documentation which stated: “Though Lisa has had decreased endurance and has been limited in her activities through her prolonged recovery period, as of the present time she is medically cleared to resume her work in full capacity with her baseline level of activity and endurance.” Plaintiff met with a district investigator regarding her complaint, where she read a prepared statement, but she declined to continue meeting with the investigator after retaining counsel. Plaintiff's counsel indicated to the district by letter dated September 12, 2012, that plaintiff had fulfilled her obligations under the district's Harassment Policy.

         On September 21, 2012, plaintiff filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission ...

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