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Erin M. White v. the Baldwin School

October 17, 2012

ERIN M. WHITE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE BALDWIN SCHOOL, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM

Erin White was fired from her job as a teacher and coach at The Baldwin School ("Baldwin"). She sued the school and unnamed Defendants for racial discrimination, retaliation, defamation, and invasion of privacy. Now before the Court is Baldwin's motion to dismiss the defamation and invasion of privacy claims in White's Amended Complaint. For the reasons below, the motion is granted.

I. BACKGROUND

White began working as a physical education teacher and coach at the Baldwin School, a private, all-girls school, in 2003. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 6-8.) White is African-American. (Id. ¶ 8.)

On March 4, 2011, White was informed by Deborah Surgi, Baldwin's Director of Athletics and head of the physical education department, and Joanne Brasberger, Chief Financial Officer and Director of Human Resources, that her contract was not being renewed for 2011-12 as a result of cuts in the athletic department. (Id. ¶¶ 37, 39.) White was told that her termination was not performance-related. (Id. ¶ 40.) White maintains that Baldwin retained less qualified Caucasian faculty members in the athletic department. (Id. ¶¶ 41-43.) White's teaching responsibilities have been assumed by a Caucasian female with less seniority than White, and her coaching duties have been assigned to three Caucasian males. (Id. ¶¶ 43-46.)

White also alleges that "in the weeks before her termination, and during her final months as a teacher at Baldwin, [she] was treated differently than her Caucasian counterparts and retaliated against for complaining of racial discrimination." (Id. ¶ 49.) On January 5, 2011, White sought permission from the head of Baldwin to attend the National Convention for the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, and Dance, but the request was denied. (Id. ¶¶ 50, 53.) Instead, Surgi asked a Caucasian female faculty member to attend. (Id. ¶ 54.) Surgi also "berated White for a perceived failure to follow protocol to report her absence from school . . . due to illness." (Id. ¶ 61.) White voiced her concerns to Kathy England, the Physical Education Department Coordinator, and following England's advice, requested a meeting with Brasberger to discuss Surgi's behavior towards her. (Id. ¶¶ 62-63.) On February 22, 2011, White met with Brasberger to describe Surgi's behavior. (Id. ¶ 64.) Though Brasberger was initially empathetic when she met privately with White, her attitude was dismissive once Surgi and England joined the meeting. (Id. ¶¶ 66-67.)

On March 4, 2011, White was told during a meeting with Brasberger and Surgi that she was being terminated. (Id. ¶ 68.) "Both before and after the March 4, 2011 termination meeting, Surgi and England embarked on a needless quest to harass and micromanage White in a way which was not only uncalled for, but which had never been imposed on any Caucasian employee in the Athletic Department." (Id. ¶ 69.) White was the lowest-paid teacher in the athletic department and, contrary to Baldwin's policy, she was not awarded a raise once she completed her Masters Degree in December of 2009. (Id. ¶¶ 79-81.)

On March 10, 2011, White and Brasberger met to discuss how White should inform her students that she would not be returning. (Id. ¶ 83.) On March 16, 2011, White informed her upper school advisory group that her contract was not being renewed and she would not be returning to Baldwin the following year. (Id. ¶ 86.) She also informed her middle school soccer team later in the year that she would not be returning. (Id. ¶¶ 88-89.) Both groups of students "became emotional" at the news of White's departure. (Id. ¶¶ 87, 90.)

On May 13, 2011, White had a meeting with Sally Powell, the head of Baldwin, Brasberger, and Lois Pressman, the head of the middle school, in which Pressman accused White of "upsetting the students and sending them into a 'frenzy' when announcing that she would no longer be teaching at Baldwin." (Id. ¶ 91.) Brasberger falsely accused White of "not telling the students 'the truth,' i.e., that the Athletic Department was cutting back." (Id. ¶ 93.) As a result of White's alleged lapse of judgment, it was initially decided that she should immediately leave the campus and not finish the school year. (Id.) On May 16, 2011, Brasberger called White and told her that she could return to work the next day, but asked that White attend a meeting with Powell and Brasberger before the start of classes. (Id. ¶ 96.) During that meeting on May 17, 2011, Powell and Brasberger berated White for inappropriate comments to students regarding her departure. (Id. ¶ 97.) Despite the embarrassment inflicted upon her, White finished out the school year. (Id. ¶ 102.)

"[B]oth Brasberger and Pressman made false accusations to Powell about White during the meeting on May 13, 2011 regarding the means by which White had informed her students that she would not be returning to Baldwin." (Id. ¶ 106.) In May of 2011, a second grade teacher at Baldwin told White that she had heard that White was let go because "[White] upset kids and that's why they let you go;" the teacher did not tell White from whom she heard this information, though White alleges that it must have come from one or more of the participants in the May 13, 2011 meeting.

(Id. ¶¶ 107-08.)

The Complaint includes six counts, including Title VII and PHRA discrimination and retaliation, defamation, and false light invasion of privacy.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a district court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Bd. of Trs. of Bricklayers & Allied Craftsman Local 6 of N.J. Welfare Fund v. Wettlin Assocs., 237 F.3d 270, 272 (3d Cir. 2001). A court need not, however, credit "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions" when deciding a motion to dismiss. Morse ...


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