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Mudge v. Zugalla

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

September 12, 2019

RANDY A. MUDGE, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Anne M. Zugalla, Daniel Harder, Defendants-Appellants [*]

          Argued: March 28, 2019

         The plaintiff-appellee, Randy Mudge, was terminated from his position as a substitute teacher in the Middleburgh Central School District, a public-school district located in Middleburgh, New York, after the defendants-appellants, Anne Zugalla and Daniel Harder, employees of the New York State Department of Education, informed the School District's superintendent that they had opened an ethics investigation into Mudge's conduct. The plaintiff brought suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging in relevant part procedural due process and stigma-plus claims related to the termination of his employment. The defendants asserted a qualified immunity defense. The district court (David N. Hurd, Judge) denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment, but did not address the defendants' qualified immunity defense. On a motion for reconsideration, the district court, addressing that issue for the first time, concluded that the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because the plaintiff had demonstrated that the defendants had violated clearly established law. On appeal, the defendants argue that the district court erred in denying their motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. We agree. With respect to the plaintiff's due process claim, we conclude that Mudge has failed to establish a clearly established right to the meaningful opportunity to utilize his teaching license. He has also failed to demonstrate that the defendants' conduct was sufficiently stigmatizing under clearly established law so as to give rise to a "stigma-plus" claim. The defendants are, therefore, entitled to qualified immunity, and the district court erred in denying summary judgment as to both claims. The judgment of the district court is therefore:

          Jennifer L. Clark (Barbara D. Underwood, Andrea Oser, on the brief), New York State Office of the Attorney General, Albany, NY, for Defendants-Appellants,

          Brian D. Deinhart (Phillip G. Steck, on the brief), Cooper Erving & Savage LLP, Albany, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before: Sack, Hall, and Droney, Circuit Judges.

          SACK, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         The plaintiff-appellee, Randy Mudge, is a physical education teacher and school administrator licensed by New York State. In 2008, Mudge was investigated and charged by the New York State Education Department for committing acts of sexual misconduct with former students, resulting in a one- year suspension of his state licenses.

         Mudge subsequently obtained employment as a substitute teacher in the Middleburgh Central School District. Shortly thereafter, however, defendants- appellants, Anne Zugalla and Daniel Harder, employees of the New York State Department of Education, informed the School District's superintendent that they were instituting an investigation into Mudge's conduct. Although the defendants ultimately concluded that there were no grounds for an investigation, the plaintiff was terminated from his teaching position.

         The plaintiff brought suit against the defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging procedural due process and so-called "stigma-plus" claims related to the termination of his employment. The defendants asserted a qualified immunity defense.

         The district court denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment but did not address the defendants' qualified immunity defense. On a motion for reconsideration, the district court, addressing that issue for the first time, concluded that the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. On appeal, the defendants argue that the district court erred in denying their motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. For the reasons that follow, we agree. The plaintiff's procedural due process claim cannot stand because he has failed to establish a clearly established right to the meaningful opportunity to utilize his teaching license. He has also failed to demonstrate that the defendants' conduct was sufficiently stigmatizing under clearly established law so as to give rise to a "stigma-plus" claim. We therefore reverse the judgment and remand the case with instruction to the district court to enter summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

         BACKGROUND

         General Factual Background

         The plaintiff-appellant Randy Mudge is a physical education teacher and school administrator licensed in New York State.[1] He brings this suit against two employees of the New York State Education Department (the "NYSED"): Anne Zugalla, a senior professional conduct investigator, and Daniel Harder, a senior attorney in the Office of School Personnel Review and Accountability ("OSPRA"). OSPRA is the department within the NYSED charged with investigating allegations concerning the moral character of New York State teaching license- holders.

         From 1987 to 2010, the plaintiff worked in the Hunter-Tannersville Central School District ("HTC") as a physical education teacher and athletic coach. In 2006, HTC received complaints that some twenty years before, the plaintiff had engaged in sexual behavior with two students. The school reported these complaints to OSPRA. Between 2006 and 2008, OSPRA prosecuted the plaintiff in a Part 83 proceeding, a hearing before an administrative panel to determine whether a claim of misconduct against a teaching-license holder raises a reasonable question of moral character. See 8 NYCRR § 83.1 et seq. Defendant Harder was the OSPRA attorney responsible for the plaintiffs prosecution. The administrative panel determined that, in 1989 and 1992, Mudge "groomed" two students for sexual activity while they were in high school and had sexual relationships with them shortly after they graduated. It recommended a one-year suspension of the plaintiffs teaching licenses. Mudge served his suspension from May 2009 to May 2010. He subsequently resigned from his position at HTC.

         In the autumn of 2011, the plaintiff applied for a middle school principal position in the Middleburgh Central School District ("Middleburgh"). The application did not require Mudge to report his prior teaching suspension. The interview committee became aware of it nonetheless as a result of an online search by committee members into each of the candidates, including Mudge. As a result, Middleburgh's superintendent, Michele Weaver, informed Mudge that he would not be considered for the position. She subsequently had a "full and frank" conversation with him about his suspension. Plaintiff Affidavit in Response to Summary Judgment at 2 (Joint Appendix ("J.A.") 300 ¶ 9). Thereafter, Mudge applied for a position as a Middleburgh substitute teacher. In December 2011, the Middleburgh Board of Education ("the Board") hired him notwithstanding its knowledge of his prior suspension. Mudge began serving as the substitute for a physical education teacher who had taken a medical leave of absence.

         In early 2012, Harder, the OSPRA lawyer who had prosecuted the Part 83 proceeding that resulted in Mudge's suspension, received a phone call from a member of the public, unidentified in the record, informing him that the plaintiff had obtained employment at Middleburgh. Harder thought that a failure to truthfully reveal prior discipline or professional certificate history raised a question of moral character that could subject a license-holder to a Part 83 proceeding. See 8 NYCRR § 83.1 et seq.; Harder Declaration at 46 ΒΆ 22 (J.A. 46). Harder therefore decided to review Mudge's employment application to Middleburgh to ...


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