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Zohni v. The School District of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 25, 2019

INES S. ZOHNI, Plaintiff,


          DuBois, J.


         In this employment discrimination case, plaintiff claims she was terminated from her position as a Special Education Teacher at Richard R. Wright Elementary School (“Wright Elementary”) after an illness during a holiday vacation required her to extend her absence from work. Plaintiff filed a Complaint on December 31, 2018, asserting claims of disability, race, and ancestry discrimination. Presently before the Court is defendants' partial motion to dismiss. For the reasons that follow, defendants' Motion is denied without prejudice.


         Plaintiff was hired by the School District of Philadelphia (the “District”) in 2008 and worked as a Special Education Teacher at Wright Elementary until her suspension in on January 13, 2014. Compl. ¶¶ 9, 16. The District is governed by the School Reform Commission (“SRC”) which has final policymaking authority for the District. Id. ¶ 3. Plaintiff was supervised by the principal of Wright Elementary, defendant Shauneille Taylor. Id. ¶ 5.

         Plaintiff avers in her Complaint that the District and Taylor discriminated against her on the basis of both her race/ancestry and her disability. Plaintiff was born in Egypt and was the only employee of Middle Eastern ancestry working at the school. Id. ¶ 10. During her employment at Wright Elementary plaintiff suffered from major depression, anxiety, and other ailments that affected her vision, concentration, eating, sleeping and ability to drive and walk. Id. ¶ 11. Plaintiff also suffered from fatigue, weight loss, sweating and extreme hot and cold sensitivity. Id. ¶ 11. Plaintiff has now been diagnosed with Hyperthyroidism. Id. ¶ 11.

         In December of 2013, plaintiff traveled to Egypt for a vacation during a school holiday break. Id. ¶ 13. She became ill while she was in Egypt and was unable to return to work by the expected return date of January 2, 2014. Id. ¶ 14. She reported her illness through the “AESOP substitute services computer network, ” as required. However, due to a technical error, only two dates on which she was absent were recorded - January 2 and 10, 2014. Id. ¶ 14. Plaintiff was unable to report her absences by phone while in Egypt. Id. ¶ 14. She further claims that on January 8, 2014, plaintiff's father, Saleh Zohni, called Principal Taylor to report plaintiff's illness and inability to return to work until January 13, 2014. Id. ¶ 15.

         When Plaintiff arrived at Wright Elementary on January 13, 2014, Taylor did not allow her to return to work. Id. ¶ 16. Instead Taylor suspended plaintiff without pay, requested a hearing for plaintiff's unauthorized absences, and recommended dismissal. Id. ¶ 16.

         Informal hearings were held on March 25 and April 28, 2014. Id. ¶ 17. On June 2, 2014 the SRC prepared a statement of charges and notice of a right to hearing, and recommended dismissal of employment, stating “you are hereby suspended without pay pending a decision on the . . . recommendation of dismissal.” Id. ¶ 18. On April 14, 2015, a formal hearing was conducted at which Taylor testified.[1] Id. ¶ 19. According to plaintiff, at that hearing, Taylor “deliberately misrepresented facts and circumstances related to the events surrounding Plaintiff's going on vacation to Egypt and her absences . . .with the intent on [sic] getting Plaintiff fired . . . [Taylor's] actions were motivated by Plaintiff's ancestry or ethnic characteristics and/or Plaintiff's illness and disability.” Id. ¶ 24. On August 20, 2015, the SRC issued a decision on plaintiff's employment and took action “approv[ing] the [ ] District's recommendation of [plaintiff's] dismissal as Special Education Teacher effective January 13, 2014.” Id. ¶ 20.

         Plaintiff states that individuals of different ancestry and ethnic characteristics were given lesser discipline, such as suspension, or afforded progressive discipline before termination for conduct more egregious than plaintiff's, including violations of attendance and other school policies. Id. ¶ 22. She further claims that defendants failed to accommodate her disability by not authorizing her leave in January of 2014. Id. ¶ 23.

         Plaintiff filed her Complaint on December 31, 2018. The Complaint includes the following claims: (1) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the District (Count I); (2) violations of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”) against the District and Taylor (Count II); and (3) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against Taylor (Count III). Defendants filed a partial motion to dismiss on April 8, 2019, seeking dismissal of Counts I and III (Document No. 5). Plaintiff responded to the Motion on April 22, 2019 (Document No. 6).

         During a telephone conference on June 20, 2019, in which counsel for both parties presented argument on the Motion, the Court denied the Motion without prejudice. That decision is amplified in this Memorandum.


         “The purpose of a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss is to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint.” Nelson v. Temple Univ., 920 F.Supp. 633, 634 n.2 (E.D. Pa. 1996). To survive a motion to dismiss, plaintiff must allege “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal citations omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 678. In assessing the plausibility of the plaintiff's claims, a district court first identifies those allegations that constitute nothing more than mere “legal conclusions” or “naked assertion[s].” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557, 564 (2007). Such allegations are “not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. The court then assesses “the ‘nub' of the plaintiff['s] complaint-the well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegation[s]”-to determine whether it states a plausible claim for relief. Id. at 680. ...

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