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Singh v. School District of Philadelphia

August 11, 2010

RADHA SINGH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

On May 4, 2010, Plaintiff Radha Singh ("Singh") commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by filing a civil complaint against the School District of Philadelphia, Debra Carrera, Deana Ramsey, Jose LeBron, Gregory Shannon, Victoria Pressley, Arlene Ackerman and Robert Archie (collectively "Defendants"). Singh alleges violations of his First Amendment and procedural due process rights and breach of contractual obligations by Defendants. Singh is a school teacher. Defendants are Singh's former employer and various school district administrators.

On May 13, 2010, Singh filed a Motion for Permanent and/or Preliminary Injunction (Doc. No. 2). On May 28, 2010, Defendants filed a Response in Opposition to Singh's Motion for Permanent and/or Preliminary Injunction (Doc. No. 13). On July 9, 2010, the Court held a hearing on Singh's Motion. After considering the testimony and exhibits offered by the parties at the hearing and their filings in this case, the Court will deny the Motion for Permanent and/or Preliminary Injunction.

II. FINDINGS OF FACT

Plaintiff Singh is a tenured teacher and a coordinator of the English for Speakers of Other Languages ("ESOL") program. (Testimony of Radha Singh ["Singh"], Transcript of Hearing, July 9, 2010 ["Tr."], at 48:1-2; 148:14-17). He is a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and is subject to the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement ("CBA"). (Id. at 136:23-137:10; Plaintiff's Complaint Exhibit F.) Defendants are the School District of Philadelphia ("District"), which recently terminated Singh, and various District administrators. (Pl. Comp. ¶¶ 2-9.)

Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School ("Kensington CAPA"), a District high school, hired Singh in September 2009. He was first employed as an ESOL teacher and was soon given the additional position of ESOL program coordinator; however, the District removed him from these positions in January 2010. Defendants cite three incidents of corporal punishment and one incident of disrespectful behavior towards school administrators as just cause for Singh's termination. Conversely, Singh alleges that his termination stems from his several complaints that the Kensington CAPA ESOL program was not in compliance with federal regulations. At the hearing held on July 9, 2010, Plaintiff testified on his own behalf and called Defendants Arlene Ackerman, District Superintendent, and Debra Carrera, principal of Kensington CAPA, as adverse witnesses. Defendants presented testimony from Jose LeBron, interim principal of Kensington CAPA, and Linda Brown, a District labor relations assistant. Witness testimonies are summarized below.

1. Testimony of Radha Singh

Radha Singh is a tenured teacher with the District. (Singh, Tr., at 41:19-20.) Prior to teaching in the District, Singh worked as an ESOL program director at Drexel University and grants manager with the District. (Id. at 42:11-12; 46:6-7.) From these positions, Singh developed specialized knowledge of federal ESOL regulations and laws, including the Y.S. Stipulation,*fn1 a federal order delineating certain requirements for ESOL programs. (Id. at 46:1-19.) As an ESOL teacher, the District also required Singh to follow the English Language Learners Education Program Handbook ("ELL Handbook"), which mandates ESOL teachers to support the implementation of school ESOL programs, provide adequate instruction to students, perform assessments, and utilize data. (Id. at 89:15-90:1; Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 2.)

Beginning in September 2009, Singh was employed at Kensington CAPA as an ESOL teacher. (Id. at 48:1-2; 148:14-17.) Singh testified that two weeks after he started this position, he realized that the Kensington CAPA ESOL program was not in compliance with federal law. (Id. at 50:3-8.) Shortly thereafter, he notified Defendant Debra Carrera ("Carrera") through email and in person that the program was in "complete disarray" and that there were inadequate textbooks for ESOL students. (Id. at 50:8; 53:23--54:4; 98:20.) Singh's complaints encompassed allegations that there were insufficient records of student assessments and rosters, including records of each student's English learning level and progress and improper communication with parents. (Id. at 50:23-51:3.)

In October 2009, Carrera left Kensington CAPA on maternity leave. At that point, Singh contacted interim principal, Defendant Jose LeBron ("LeBron"), about the inadequacies of the ESOL program. (Id. at 58:19-59:10; Pl. Hr. Ex. 9.)

Singh testified that soon after he expressed his initial complaints regarding the Kensington CAPA ESOL program, he was named the ESOL program coordinator. (Singh, Tr.,at 148:14-15.) Carrera afforded Singh the fourth period off each school day to work on the ESOL program and to ensure that it was in compliance with federal regulations. (Id. at 149:1-4; 149:23-150:1.) Singh testified that LeBron encouraged Singh's work on the ESOL program and never asked Singh to stop commenting and asking questions about it. (Id. at 134:18-135:7.)

In the 2009-2010 school year, Singh was disciplined four times for showing disrespect to school administrators and inflicting corporal punishment on his students. The first incident occurred on October 26, 2009. On that date, Singh placed his hands on a student's head, causing her head to turn. (Id. at 62:16-20). Singh testified that immediately following this incident, Carrera did not ask for his side of the story. Singh admitted that he was afforded notice and an investigatory hearing regarding this incident. (Id. at 63:5-8; 137:14-16.)

The second incident leading to disciplinary action took place on December 17, 2009, when Singh raised his voice to a school administrator and slammed his classroom door on her. (Id. at 103:11-14). Following this incident, Singh received notice of an investigative hearing and responded to the accusations at an investigative hearing while accompanied by his union representative. (Id. at 104:12-17.) He later responded to the accusations at a higher level hearing and was suspended for two days. (Id. at 107:10-23; Pl. Hr. Ex. 7.)

Also on December 17, 2009, another student complained that Singh hit him on the head. (Id. at 108:11.) Again, Singh was afforded notice of an investigative hearing, which was held with his union representative present. (Id. at 107:17-19; 109:8-12.)

The fourth and final incident occurred on January 29, 2010, when another student accused Singh of grabbing her arm while she was throwing a potato chip bag. (Id. at 122:23-25.) Singh testified that he grabbed the bag itself and not the student. (Id. at 68:7-9.) However, photographs of the student's arm revealed scratches and red marks. (Id. at 123:6-10.) Again, Singh was afforded notice of an investigatory conference and the investigatory conference was held with his union representative present. (Id. at 125:8-17.) Singh testified that at that conference he was able to discuss certain aspects of the incident, but he was not satisfied because he could not go into more detail about what transpired. (Id. at 127:5-7.)

Singh was also afforded a higher level conference where he again explained his version of the events. At this higher level conference, Singh was afforded the opportunity to question a student witness. (Id. at 128:16-24.) Following this episode involving the potato chip bag, Singh testified that he was immediately removed from his classroom. (Id. at 43:23-25.) After this removal on January 29, 2010, Singh was sent to the District regional office and reported there every school day until March 19, 2010, when he was terminated as a District employee. (Id. at 44:12-13.)

Singh does not dispute that his union representative was present at all conferences and hearings and admitted that Carrera once postponed a hearing to ensure that his union representative could be present. (Id. at 137:19-21; 109:2-12.) However, during his testimony, Singh expressed frustration with the District's investigatory and hearing process. Singh testified that he was not able to fully explain his side of the story at any of the investigative and higher level hearings. (Id. at 104:18-25; 105:18-19.) He also stated that he was explicitly instructed not to conduct his own investigation or question students and that this impacted his ability to defend himself. (Id. at 117:9-12.) For example, he testified that he was suspended for ten days after talking to a student during an investigation. (Id. at 74:1-4.)

Singh also filed charges on February 4, 2010 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that he was threatened with termination based on his age, race, and national origin; however, he did not raise the charge that he was retaliated against. (Id. at 140:7-23; 141:24-142:7.) On April 9, 2010, the District sent Singh a termination letter,*fn2 which cites corporal punishment and disrespect toward school administrators as just cause for his termination. (Id. at 60:14-22; Pl. Hr. Ex. 7.) Singh has not received payment from the District since April 16, 2010. (Id. at 45:12-14.)

2. Testimony of Debra Carrera

Debra Carrera is the principal of Kensington CAPA. (Testimony of Debra Carrera ["Carrera"], Tr., at 155:9-11.) Carrera was the active principal when Singh arrived at Kensington CAPA, but took maternity leave from October 9, 2009 to December 8, 2009. (Id. at 155:17-18.) She has since resumed her position as principal of Kensington CAPA. (Id. at 155:11.)

Carrera testified that the notice Singh received prior to his investigatory hearings stated that he could not interview students or teachers. (Id. at 161:15-18.) However, she noted that he was only instructed to refrain from doing so while an investigation was pending. (Id. at 161:19.) Singh was afforded the opportunity to interview the teachers and students involved in the incidents at the hearings, which he did. (Id. at 161:11-21.)

Carrera explained that it is proper procedure to avoid discussing corporal punishment issues with an accused teacher immediately following an incident or allegation. (Id. at 166:12-13.) It is also common practice to schedule an administrative conference. (Id. at 166:16-17.) She testified that she sought to protect Singh's rights and "[gave] him, not only an invitation to this conference, but [also] copies of all of the [witnesses'] statements, all of the enclosures, so that Mr. Singh [could] provide his statement, with his union representation present." (Id. at 166:17-21) Carrera stressed that she instructed Singh to talk with his union representative before making a statement to protect his interest. (Id. at 167:11.)

Carrera disputed Singh's claim that he repeatedly approached her about Kensington CAPA's ESOL program. She testified that Singh never verbally approached her about the program's alleged noncompliance with federal regulations. (Id. at 170:8.) She stated that, while he emailed her about the ESOL program, his allegations of noncompliance seemed to relate to the district office, and not just to Kensington CAPA. (Id. at 170:25-171:2; Pl. Hr. Ex. 8.)

Carrera provided credible testimony that she supported Singh in his efforts as an ESOL teacher and coordinator. (Carrera, Tr.,at 172:12-14.) She noted that "[she] was excited to have him on board, and [was] looking forward to seeing the work that he was going to do, excited that we had someone who was ESOL and English certified, which was something we were looking for as a school." (Id. at 176:16-19.) Carrera showed her support by giving Singh the fourth period off to work on ESOL program records and other aspects of the program. (Id. at 171:22-24.) She also hired a bilingual counseling assistant to help Singh with his classes and with the ESOL program generally.

(Id. at 172:2-5.) In addition to the bilingual counseling assistant, Carrera hired ESOL tutors. (Id. at 172:6.) Finally, after Singh recommended she do so, Carrera sent regular education teachers to get ESOL training so that ESOL students ...


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