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Graham v. Avella Area School District

January 24, 2008

PAULETTE GRAHAM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE AVELLA AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, THE AVELLA AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION, & MICHAEL YANOSKO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Presently before the Court for disposition is the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, with brief in support, filed by Defendants, The Avella Area School District, The Avella Area School District Board of Education, and Michael Yanosko (Document Nos. 25 and 27, respectively), and the brief and response in opposition filed by Plaintiff, Paulette Graham (Documents No. 33 and 34).

The issues have been fully briefed and the matter is ripe for disposition. After a careful consideration of the motion, the filings in support and opposition thereto, the memoranda of the parties, the relevant case law, and the record as a whole, the Court finds that there are genuine issues of material fact which remain as to Plaintiff's § 1983 sex /gender harassment and hostile work environment claims. However, the Court finds that there is not sufficient record evidence upon which a reasonable jury could return a verdict for Plaintiff on her federal claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) and 1986 and her state law claim for defamation. Accordingly, the motion for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Paulette Graham ("Plaintiff") brought this lawsuit on September 27, 2005, by the filing of a five-count Complaint against her former employer, the Avella Area School District ("School District"), the Avella Area School District Board of Education ("Board of Education"), and school board member Michael Yanosko ("Defendant Yanosko"). Plaintiff alleges that she was discriminated against based on her gender and age and that Defendants retaliated against her when she made complaints of such alleged discrimination, which ultimately led to her constructive discharge. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendant Yanosko defamed her by publicly commenting on her alleged incompetency, her alleged misuse or theft of School District funds, and an alleged sexual affair that Plaintiff had with another District Administrator, High School Principal Daniel Cecchini.

Plaintiff brought her claims pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq., 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986; the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 42 Pa. Stat. § 951, et seq., and under Pennsylvania state law for defamation.

By Order of Court dated June 14, 2006, the Court granted the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and Plaintiff's claims under Title VII, the ADEA, and the PHRA were dismissed with prejudice for failure to timely exhaust administrative remedies. Presently remaining are Plaintiff's claims against all Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 1985 and 1986, and Plaintiff's state law claim for defamation against Defendant Yanosko.

Defendants have filed the instant motion for summary judgment in which they contend that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Plaintiff is unable to establish (i) a prima facie case of sex/gender harassment and hostile work environment under Section 1983,*fn1 (iii) a prima facie case of age discrimination,*fn2 (iv) a prima facie case of conspiracy under Section 1985, (v) a prima facie case of aiding a conspiracy under Section 1986, and (vi) a prima facie case of defamation.

BACKGROUND

As the law requires, all disputed facts and inferences are to be resolved most favorable to the Plaintiff.

Plaintiff Paulette Graham ("Plaintiff") was hired as Superintendent of the School District on October 11, 2000. Plaintiff agreed to a five (5) year employment contract, which commenced November 1, 2000 and was scheduled to end on June 30, 2005. Prior to being hired by the School District, Plaintiff was the principal at Washington Park Elementary School for approximately nine (9) years.

As Superintendent, Plaintiff understood that she was the only administrator with a direct line of responsibility from the School Board to the teaching staff of the School District. The Business Manager, principals, and other administrative staff reported directly to her.

During Plaintiff's tenure as Superintendent of the School District, three (3) people served as president of the School Board, to wit: Joann Yukevich, president when Plaintiff was hired through November 2001; Nick Cecchini, from December 2001 through the end of November, 2002; Defendant Yanosko from December 2002 through the end of November, 2003; and Joann Yukevich from December, 2003 through November, 2004.

Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Yanosko was adamantly opposed to hiring a woman to fill the job of Superintendent for School District. According to Plaintiff, because of this bias, Defendant Yanosko subjected her to continuous gender harassment, discriminatory retaliation, and a hostile work environment.

Plaintiff alleges that during Defendant Yanosko's tenure as School Board President, his campaign against her escalated. He forbade her from calling any other School Board members and would not allow her to place items on the agenda unless he first approved it. Plaintiff additionally alleges that Defendant Yanosko was critical of her performance and that he openly expressed that criticism at public meetings of the School Board. According to Plaintiff, Defendant Yanosko's criticisms were not restricted to matters of School District business or governance or other matters of public concern, but rather many times these criticisms were of matters personal in nature. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendant Yanosko would not let Plaintiff express her ideas or address questions posed at the School Board meetings. Instead, he would "shush" her and cut her off when she attempted to speak.

In October of 2003, Defendant Yanosko confronted Plaintiff while in a rage over various school district issues. Plaintiff alleges that she was so fearful and intimidated that thereafter when she was leaving late meetings, either of the School Board or of its committees, she would always make sure someone escorted her to her car.

Plaintiff also contends that Defendant Yanosko was demanding, abrasive, and raised his voice towards certain men if they defended her actions, namely Principal Daniel Cecchini, Business Manager Eric Brandenburg, and Solicitor Lee Price. However, according to Plaintiff, Defendant Yanosko would later apologize to these men, but he never apologized to her.

During her tenure as Superintendent, Plaintiff would typically meet with High School Principal Daniel Cecchini weekly, for two to three hours, and at any other time when there was a problem. Several members of the school community, including faculty, staff, and community members, began to speculate about whether Plaintiff and Principal Cecchini were engaged in a romantic relationship. Plaintiff alleges that these speculations arose because Defendant Yanosko stated at a public School Board meeting in June 2003 that Plaintiff and Principal Cecchini were having an affair.

Plaintiff alleges that the harassment she experienced increased in 2003 when two (2) new School Board members who were opposed to Plaintiff were elected, Roy Miller and Tim Yilit. According to Plaintiff, with the addition of these two new School Board members, a large group of people, mainly family and friends of Defendant Yanosko and Roy Miller, came the School Board meetings to harass her. At these meetings, Board members and/or school parents would sometimes clap or cheer when Defendant Yanosko made statements which were critical of Plaintiff's performance. Security guards were eventually brought in to attend the School Board meetings to prevent the various attendees from getting too boisterous.

It is undisputed that during Plaintiff's tenure as Superintendent at least two (2) controversies arose which subjected her to public criticism. The first controversy arose in January 2004 and involved the theft of funds by a high school cafeteria employee and the response of the School Administration to that occurrence. Subsequently, Defendant Yanosko made statements at a public School Board meeting which reflected that Plaintiff, High School Principal Daniel Cecchini, and Eric Brandenburg, the Business Manager, mishandled the investigation and covered up the extent of the theft. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Yanosko pursued a private investigation of this issue in hopes of finding something to constitute grounds for removal of Plaintiff as Superintendent.

A second controversy arose when a high school teacher was accused of making inappropriate sexual remarks to students. Members of the School Board, as well as school parents, were critical of the manner in which Plaintiff and Principal Daniel Cecchini handled the investigation. Subsequently, the School Board hired an outside attorney to conduct an investigation into the manner in which the Administration handled the allegations against the teacher.

In addition to creating a hostile work environment, Plaintiff alleges that on a number of occasions Defendant Yanosko sexually harassed her. For example, Plaintiff alleges that at school football and basketball games, he would sit uncomfortably close to her and rub his legs against her. He would also compliment her on how she was dressed in a tone of voice which Plaintiff found offensive. As a result of these encounters, Plaintiff began to sell tickets rather than sit next to Defendant Yanosko at the events.

During her employment as Superintendent, Plaintiff did not make any written complaints to any individuals or entities regarding her treatment by Defendant Yanosko. However, Plaintiff alleges that on multiple occasions she made verbal complaints to a number of people, including various school board members, the School District business manager, and the School District Solicitor, Lee Price. However, a "conspiracy of acquiescence" existed which tolerated Defendant Yanosko's alleged inappropriate behavior.

Both Plaintiff and Principal Daniel Cecchini submitted letters of resignation from the School District on April 21, 2004, which resignations were effective on June 30, 2004. Plaintiff contends that she was forced to resign and that her termination was due to the fact that the "conditions of employment had become so hostile that Plaintiff could no longer continue." Pl's Br. at 7. Plaintiff contends that she would not have retired but for the harassment / hostile work environment created by the conduct of Defendant Yanosko and the "conspiracy of acquiescence."

Plaintiff was replaced as Superintendent by a man, Wayde Killmeyer. He was hired at a starting salary ($88,000) which was $6,000 more than Plaintiff's annual salary of approximately $81,995.00 when she resigned.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment should be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Thus, the Court's task is not to resolve disputed issues of fact, but to determine whether there exist any factual issues to be tried. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-49 (1986). The non-moving party must raise "more than a mere scintilla of evidence in its favor" in order to overcome a summary judgment motion. Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249). Further, the non-moving party cannot rely on unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions in attempting to survive a summary judgment motion. Id. (citing Celotex Corp. v. ...


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