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Phillis v. Harrisburg School Dist.

March 31, 2010

DEBORAH PHILLIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HARRISBURG SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

Pending before the Court is Defendants Harrisburg School District and Cheryl Bankus' motion for summary judgment.*fn1 (Doc. No. 36.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted.

I. BACKGROUND*fn2

On August 6, 2001, Plaintiff Deborah Phillis applied for a teaching position at Defendant Harrisburg School District ("HSD"). (Doc. No. 38 ¶ 18.) On December 6, 2001, Plaintiff was notified of her appointment as a temporary professional employee of HSD. (Id. ¶ 19.) In September 2004, Plaintiff was assigned to HSD's high school as a learning support teacher. (Id. ¶ 20.)

Plaintiff taught in the basement of the school, in an area where other teachers taught and where Defendant Cheryl Bankus, Plaintiff's supervisor and the assistant principal of Harrisburg High School, was also stationed. (Id. ¶¶ 28, 59.) Bankus once made the comment that Plaintiff's room had a "musty butt smell." (Doc. No. 46 ¶ 60.)

According to HSD policy, non-tenured teachers are evaluated at least twice per school year and tenured teachers are evaluated at least once per school year. (Doc. No. 38 ¶ 22.) On June 7, 2005, Plaintiff received an "unsatisfactory" rating on her teaching evaluation from Bankus. (Id. ¶¶ 27, 28.) The unsatisfactory rating was later withdrawn by HSD. HSD maintains that the rating was valid, but that it was withdrawn for certain procedural deficiencies. (Id. ¶ 32.)

On June 24, 2005, Plaintiff filed a grievance against HSD pursuant to her union's collective bargaining agreement. (Id. ¶ 35.) Plaintiff filed subsequent grievances against HSD through her union, the Harrisburg Education Association, in October 2005, February 2006, and April 2006. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 46, 83.)

On July 26, 2005, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC"). (Id. ¶ 36.) She filed subsequent complaints alleging age discrimination and illegal retaliation with the PHRC in November 2005, February 2006, July 2006, and October 2006. (Id. ¶¶ 47, 64, 67, 69.) The PHRC found no probable cause as to Plaintiff's claims. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Plaintiff filed complaints with the EEOC in June 2005, October 2005, February 2006, June 2006, and December 2006. (Doc. Nos. 1 ¶ 28; 38 ¶¶ 3-4.) The first complaint alleged age discrimination; all four subsequent complaints alleged age discrimination and illegal retaliation by HSD. (Doc. Nos. 1 ¶ 28; 38 ¶¶ 3-4.)

On October 3, 2005, HSD prepared an Individual Teacher Improvement Plan ("ITIP") for Plaintiff. (Doc. No. 38 ¶ 38.) It is HSD's stated policy that ITIPS are not imposed to punish teachers, but to help them improve their teaching skills. (Id. ¶ 72.) The ITIP cited several areas of concern regarding Plaintiff, including her "classroom management techniques, teacher interaction with students, and compliance with district regulations and policies." (Id. ¶ 39.) Plaintiff contends that the ITIP was done in retaliation for her filing a PHRC complaint. (Doc. No. 46 ¶ 39.) The ITIP was provided to Plaintiff on October 3, 2005, during a meeting with Bankus, Evangeline Kimber, and Maria McGlosson, a teacher's union representative. (Doc. No. 38 ¶¶ 44-45.) As a result of the ITIP, Plaintiff filed the second grievance with her union on October 16, 2005, and her second complaint with the PHRC on November 10, 2005. (Id. ¶¶ 46-47).

On February 3, 2006, Bankus conducted a formal classroom observation of Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 49.) On February 6, 2006, Plaintiff received a rating of "unsatisfactory" on the Temporary Professional Employee/Professional Employee Rating Form. (Id. ¶ 52.) As before, Plaintiff contends that the rating was in retaliation. (Doc. No. 46 ¶ 52.) On February 15, 2006, Plaintiff filed her third grievance pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. (Doc. No. 38 ¶ 63.)

In April 2006, Plaintiff received a letter of reprimand for placing her class rules on a table instead of posting them on the wall. (Id. ¶ 81-82.) Plaintiff filed a grievance challenging the reprimand, but the grievance was not upheld. (Id. ¶ 83.)

In approximately June 2006, HSD administration officials began to review Plaintiff's employment file regarding what it contends was a discrepancy in Plaintiff's prior employment and criminal history. (Id. ¶¶ 87-99.) On June 14, 2006, while HSD was investigating these alleged inconsistencies, Plaintiff applied to receive disability retirement benefits from the Public School Employees' Retirement System ("PSERS"). (Id. ¶ 108.) As the result of the alleged false statements on her employment application, and alleged lack of cooperation with administrators, Mark Holman, HSD's director of human resources, recommended to the HSD Superintendent that Plaintiff be terminated. (Id. ¶ 109.) The decision to begin termination proceedings is initially made by the Superintendent and then reviewed by the Board, whose chairperson executes the termination notice. (Id. ¶ 111.)

On July 27, 2006, HSD sent Plaintiff a letter regarding her hearing rights as to the termination. (Id. ¶ 115.) The letter informed Plaintiff that a hearing would be conducted on August 11, 2006, for "the purpose of determining whether [Plaintiff] should be dismissed from [her] employment with the school district." (Doc. No. 39, Ex. 40.) In addition, the letter informed Plaintiff of the charges against her:

You are charged by the school district administration with immorality, persistent negligence in the performance of duties, willful neglect of duties, and persistent and willful violation of or failure to comply with school laws of this Commonwealth including official directives and established policy of the board of control and or school directors as contemplated by the School Code of 1949 as amended, growing out of your alleged commission of the following: Inaccuracies in your employment application that were recently discovered; refusal to comply with directives of your supervisor and failing to comply with provision of your plan for improvement as evidenced by numerous directives and an unsatisfactory rating during the 2005-06 school year. (Id.) On August 25, 2006, Plaintiff was suspended without pay. (Doc. No. 47 at 7.) Plaintiff's request for disability retirement benefits was approved by PSERS on September 12, 2006. (Doc. No. 38 ¶ 116.)

A. June 25, 2007 Settlement

On June 25, 2007, following lengthy negotiations with regard to certain grievances, Plaintiff and HSD entered into a Settlement Agreement and Release ("Settlement"). (Doc. No. 38 ¶ 7.) The Settlement stated that it would not constitute an admission by either party in any subsequent proceeding. (Doc. No. 39, Ex. 14 ¶ 4.) Plaintiff agreed to waive any rights to reinstatement in the event suit was brought pursuant to the charges before the PHRC. (Doc. No. 39, Ex. 14 ¶ 3.)

Pursuant to the Settlement, Plaintiff agreed to release HSD and its employees from "any and all liability" arising from Plaintiff's employment with HSD:

Release by Employee.... Employee, and all other persons or entities claiming with, by, or through her, hereby releases and forever discharges District, and its board members, directors, officers, agents, employees and attorneys, and all other persons or entities who could be said to be jointly or severally liable with it, (individually and collectively "the Releasees") from any and all liabilities, claims, actions, causes of action or suits presently asserted or not asserted, accrued or unaccrued, known or unknown, that Employee had, now has, or may have or could claim to have against them, from the beginning of time to the date of execution of this Agreement, including, but not limited to all claims and rights in any way arising or based upon Employee's employment with District.... (Doc. No. 39, Ex. 14 ¶ 3.) However, the Settlement allowed for an exception for claims brought against HSD. Specifically, Plaintiff's actions then pending before the PHRC and EEOC against HSD and "any subsequent action in State or Federal Court arising therefrom" were not released.*fn3

(Id.) The Settlement listed the five cases that were then pending before the PHRC and the EEOC. (Id.)

B. September 21, 2007 Complaint

Plaintiff filed her complaint instituting the basis of the present lawsuit before this Court on September 21, 2007. (Doc. No. 1.) In it, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants retaliated against her because of her previous five complaints to the PHRC and the EEOC. Specifically, Plaintiff avers four different counts against the Defendants. (Id. ¶¶ 10-13.) First, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated her First Amendment "right to petition for a redress of grievances without suffering retaliation therefore." (Id. ¶ 10.) Second, Plaintiff alleges violations of her rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (Id. ¶ 11.) Third, Plaintiff alleges violations of her rights under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Id. ¶ 12.) Finally, Plaintiff alleges a violation of her rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. ¶ 13.)

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that "[t]he judgment sought should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The substantive law identifies which facts are material, and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute about a material fact is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248-49.

The moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence that it believes shows an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 145-46 (3d Cir. 2004). Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's claims, "the non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal memoranda, or oral argument." Berckeley Inv. Group. Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). If the non-moving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial," summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Summary judgment is also appropriate if the non-moving party provides merely colorable, conclusory, or speculative evidence. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. There must be more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the non-moving party and more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Id. at 252; Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In making this determination, the Court must "consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." A.W. v. Jersey City Pub. Schs., 486 F.3d 791, 794 (3d Cir. 2007).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Claims against Defendant Bankus

Citing the June 25, 2007 Settlement signed by Plaintiff, Cheryl Bankus has moved for summary judgment ...


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