Court Denies Most of a Coach’s Discrimination Claim

May 11, 2007

A federal court has scuttled a significant portion of a basketball coach’s claim, who alleged that he was passed over for a coaching position because of his religion.
Specifically, the court found that the defendant athletic department officials and school district articulated valid reasons for their hiring decisions and that the plaintiff coach, Steven Solomon, had failed to show that the decision were pretextual.
Solomon is a Jewish male, who holds a bachelor’s degree in health education, a master’s degree in physical education, coaching certificates and an administrative degree accrediting him to be a principal, assistant principal and superintendent. In or about 1989, plaintiff was hired by the Uniondale Union Free School District to teach health and physical education.
The District is a public school district, which receives federal government funds, and is a duly constituted municipal subdivision of the State of New York. The individual defendants were principal Julius Brown and athletic director William Anziano.
The plaintiff initially sued on May 14, 2003, alleging violations of Title VI and VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, and the NYSHRL. He argued specifically that “he was denied athletic coaching positions, security assignments, and the opportunity to attend teacher development workshops because he is Jewish and not of Italian descent. In particular, he accuses Anziano, the District’s Athletic Director, of discriminating against him for these reasons.
“Solomon also alleges that the District retaliated against him because he complained about Anziano’s discrimination to the EEOC in 1999. He alleges that Brown, the principal of the District’s Lawrence Road Middle School, where Solomon worked created a hostile work environment and had him transferred to (another school) in retaliation for his complaints.”
The defendants countered with a motion to dismiss the claims.
As is traditionally the case, the court relied on the burden-shifting analysis articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973), for assessing the claims brought under Title VII, Title VI, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York Executive Law § 296. Quinn v. Green Tree Credit Corp., 159 F.3d 759 (2d Cir.1998).
The plaintiff established a prima facie case of employment discrimination by establishing that he was “a member of a protected class (Jewish male) and that he was qualified for all of the coaching positions he sought.”
But while the plaintiff argued that he was not given the position because of his religion, the defendants countered that a committee interviewed the applicants, rated them pursuant to objective criteria and made recommendations to the Board of Education based on the ratings.
“(T)he legitimate, nondiscriminatory recommendation by an independent Committee based on an objective rating system of relevant qualifications requires a finding that plaintiff has failed to raise an inference of discrimination and thus failed to make a prima facie case of employment discrimination,” argued the defendants.
In addition, the plaintiff “failed to show that his qualifications were objectively significantly superior to the successful candidate in each instance. Thus, the admissible evidence is, for the most part, contrary to plaintiff’s claims.”
Nevertheless, the plaintiff did introduce into evidence a letter signed by a colleague, who claimed to have overheard Anziano making an anti-Semitic statement. While “Rubenstein’s deposition testimony indicates that he signed a statement prepared by the plaintiff, but did not have a clear recollection of any anti-Semitic statement of Anziano made, if at all,” the court noted that it must give the benefit of the doubt to the plaintiff. Thus, it denied that portion of the summary judgment motion.
Turning to the claim of a hostile work environment, the court found that the “defendants have offered legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for their actions.”
Lastly, the plaintiff’s claim of retaliation associated with the negative performance evaluation was similarly wanting.
“(P)plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the evaluations and criticisms he received were unwarranted other than to state in conclusory fashion that they were unfair. Indeed, plaintiff concedes that he engaged in the conduct, which precipitated the criticism and it would appear that the administration would have been irresponsible not to have required plaintiff to comply with school rules regarding tardiness, absence from duty schedules and proper administration of standardized examinations. Therefore, plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that defendant engaged in conduct which would objectively chill a reasonable employee’s right to engage in protected activity. Moreover, plaintiff has also failed to provide evidence that other faculty members, similarly situated to plaintiff, but for the complaint to EEOC were not given negative evaluations, counseling and reprimands for similar conduct. Thus, plaintiff has failed to show a causal connection between the evaluations, counseling and reprimands he received and the protected activity in which he engaged.”
Steven Solomon v. Uniondale Union Free School District et al.; E.D.N.Y.; 03-CV-2415 (SJF) (ETB), 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16103; 2/16/07
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Frederick K. Brewington, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of Frederick K. Brewington, Hempstead, NY. (for defendant) Howard M. Miller, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rains & Pogrebin, P.C., Mineola, NY; Stanley A. Camhi, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jaspan, Schlesinger & Hoffman, LLP, Garden City, NY.


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