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Putaro v. Carlynton School Dist.

March 16, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McVerry, J.


Pending before the Court is DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Document No. 22). Defendants have filed a Concise Statement of Material Facts*fn1 and supporting brief. Plaintiff has responded to the statement of facts and filed a brief in opposition and an affidavit (Document Nos. 28, 29, 30). Defendants have filed a reply brief and the motion is ripe for disposition.

Factual and Procedural Background

Defendant Michael Panza ("Panza") is the Superintendent of Defendant Carlynton School District ("Carlynton"). Between August 2003 and June 2006, Plaintiff Anthony N. Putaro ("Putaro") was a substitute teacher at Carlynton. In June 2006, Putaro was not offered a position as a permanent teacher. The only claim which remains in this case is Plaintiff's allegation that Defendants failed to hire him as a permanent teacher in retaliation for having been a party to a grievance filed under the collective bargaining agreement, an activity which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

The Carlynton Federation of Teachers ("CFT") ("union") filed a grievance on behalf of a number of teachers including Putaro's name on May 17, 2006. The grievance involved whether Putaro should have been compensated as a permanent or long-term substitute teacher ("sub") under the Collective Bargaining Agreement at a higher rate than the rate paid to a day-to-day sub. Plaintiff submitted an affidavit from John Torchia, the union president at the time, which states that Panza was extremely disturbed by the grievance and threatened to withhold retirement benefits from a 403(b) Plan unless the grievance was withdrawn.*fn2 On June 6, 2006, Panza denied the grievance. On June 7, 2006, the Union appealed the denial to the School Board which scheduled a hearing on June 29, 2006.

At the time, Carlynton had four elementary teaching positions to be filled for the 2006-2007 school year -- two full-time permanent teaching positions and two long-term substitute positions. There were over 700 applicants for the positions. Putaro was one of 80 of the applicants invited to a first-round interview and one of 27 invited to a second-round interview. He then qualified as one of ten finalists for a third interview which included a mock lesson. The Administration made recommendations for the hiring of new teachers to the School Board on June 29, 2006, at the same meeting at which Putaro's grievance was to be considered.

The second-round interview session was with Panza and principals Regina Urso and Jacie Bejster (now Maslyk) on June 12, 2006. There are factual disputes as to what happened next. According to Putaro, on June 13, 2006, Regina Urso, the principal of the school at which Putaro taught, called him with urgent news. Putero rushed to the school to meet with Urso in person. Urso expressed concern about Putero's job prospects based on a conversation she had with Panza regarding the adverse impact of the grievance being presented to the School Board on the same day as the hiring decision. Urso explained that the grievance had created significant problems and suggested that Putaro meet with Panza. Putaro went immediately to Panza's office. According to Putaro, Panza basically stated: "What am I supposed to do here? How can I justify putting your name - submitting your name for hire the same night that your name appears on a grievance?" Putaro Dep. 151-152. In response, Putaro attempted to convince Panza that he was not going to jeopardize a potential full-time teaching job over a grievance and offered to write an explanatory letter. Panza responded that such a letter might help. Putaro, in fact, delivered a letter to Panza that very day in which he disavowed his involvement with filing the grievance and conveyed his hope that "this situation will in no way affect my opportunity of becoming a permanent teacher. . . ." Plaintiff's Appendix 22.

Urso and Panza both admit having met with Putaro on June 13, 2006 and that Putaro was distraught about the grievance. Urso Dep. at 30; Panza Dep. at 62. Urso testified that she urged Putaro to talk to Panza. She also testified that Panza was upset that the grievance had been filed by the union. Urso Dep. at 33. Panza testified that Putaro had the letter in his hand when he showed up for the unscheduled meeting and that he assured Putaro that the grievance would not harm his chances for employment. Panza Dep. at 64.

The final interviews took place on June 19 and 21, 2006. After the interviews were completed, the interviewers (Panza, Urso, Maslyk and board member Patricia Schirripa) met to determine their final recommendations to the School Board. Schirripa was aware that a grievance had been filed on behalf of Putaro and others. Schirripa Dep. at 16. The final decision-making process is well documented.

Each interviewer scored each candidate on a 75-point scale. Urso rated Putaro at 70 points, which tied for the highest score of all finalists. Urso ranked Erin Nelson, the candidate who ultimately obtained the position, the third-lowest. Maslyk ranked Putaro fourth at 62 points. Maslyk was "not a fan" of Nelson and scored her substantially lower, at 52 points. Maslyk Dep. at 25. Schirripa awarded Putaro 60 points, fourth lowest among the finalists. Panza scored Putaro significantly lower in comparison to the other interviewers. Originally, Panza graded Putaro at 46 (lowest of all finalists) but subsequently revised his score to 51 (8th place).

After totaling the scores, Putaro ranked fourth with 243 points (despite Panza's low score) and Nelson was sixth with 239 points. The group readily agreed on candidates for the first three open positions. The fourth job opening, which was in Urso's building, was deemed a close call.*fn3 Urso left the meeting early because she was having surgery the next day. When she left, Putaro was in fourth place and she assumed that he would be hired for the fourth job opening. Urso Dep. at 34. Urso had been strongly advocating that Putaro be hired because he had been a substitute in her building for an entire year and done a good job. Maslyk Dep. at 29-30.

During the discussion, Panza recorded the place ranking of the candidates (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) by each interviewer. This alternative methodology had not been discussed beforehand.

Maslyk Dep. at 30-31. Plaintiff contends that this place ranking did not occur until after Urso left the room. Principals Urso and Maslyk ranked Putaro first and fourth, respectively, while Panza and Schirripa both ranked him eighth. Under this methodology, Nelson ranked fourth and Putaro was fifth.

Nelson was a graduate of Carlynton and had been a full-time elementary teacher in Prince George County School District for two years. Putaro was a graduate of Baldwin-Whitehall School District. He had never held a contract position as a full-time teacher, although his role as a permanent substitute required him to perform all of the duties of a full-time teacher, including lesson plans and grading, with periodic observations and evaluations. Putaro had served as a permanent substitute in Urso's building on multiple occasions and she had no negative comments about his performance. Urso Dep. at 16. The parties dispute whether hiring preferences were historically afforded to ...

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