A federal judge has dismissed a claim brought by an athletic director, who claimed that his former employer unlawfully retaliated against him when it abolished his position.
Plaintiff Louis J. Cioffi worked for the Averill Park Central School District (District) in New York for more than 25 years, mostly in the dual role of part-time social studies teacher and part time Athletic Director. Then in 1999, Cioffi was promoted to a full-time AD as well as Director of Physical Education (PE).
While Cioffi was being promoted, he was not happy. The source of his distress was Kevin Earl, who was hired by the District in 1994 as a PE teacher and head varsity football coach.
The court described the relationship between the two men as “acrimonious from the beginning,” with Cioffi complaining “that the program was out of control.”
During the summer of 2000, Cioffi went public with his criticism as the discord spilled out into the media. The plaintiff, for example, recommended that Earl not be reappointed head football coach. But Earl was reappointed.
Later that fall of 2000, it was revealed that Cioffi lacked the required PE Certification to maintain his Director of Physical Education position. However, the district worked around the problem by allowing Cioffi to keep his AD position, while designating another teacher, Rit Aldi, as a director with a $ 1,600 per year stipend.
The friction continued into the fall of 2001 when it became known that there had been a hazing incident involving a player in the high school locker room. Cioffi complained publicly about the way the incident was handled by the school board, alleging that there was a cover-up to protect Earl. The plaintiff even sent a letter to the superintendent disclaiming any responsibility for the hazing.
The following year, the school board informally decided to reorganize some administrative positions in order to save money, and abolished the plaintiff’s position as AD effective June 2002.
Reacting to this news, the plaintiff called a press conference. In his January 31, 2002, press conference statement, the plaintiff defended his personal reputation, blamed the administration for the hazing incident, and complained about his treatment at work. Nevertheless, his position was abolished less than a month later.
Cioffi, ultimately, acquired his Physical Education Certificate in June 2003, and went to another school district as Director of Athletics and Physical Education
Then he sued the district, charging First Amendment retaliation, due process, and conspiracy to violate his civil rights. The defendants moved for summary judgment, spawning the present legal dispute.
In its review, the court noted that that for a public employee to prove a First Amendment claim, he or she must establish “a causal connection between the protected speech and the adverse employment decision may be established with direct evidence of retaliatory animus or circumstantial evidence such as temporal proximity. Morris v. Lindau, 196 F.3d 102, 110 (2d Cir. 1999)”
As evidence of this, the plaintiff pointed to the aforementioned letter about the hazing incident and the press conference. “Both specific incidents of speech were employment matters not protected by the First Amendment, rather than matters of public concern entitled to free speech protection,” wrote the court in dismissing the First Amendment claim. “Even if considered to be matters of public concern, there is no evidence of a causal connection. There is no direct evidence of retaliatory animus. Also, there is no circumstantial evidence such as temporal proximity from which an inference of retaliation could be made.”
The court also dispatched with the Due Process claim, holding that the plaintiff “was not entitled to a predeprivation hearing because New York Education Law sections 2510 and 3013 were followed to properly abolish his position. See Elmendorf v. Howell, 962 F. Supp. 326, 332 (N.D.N.Y. 1997).”
Finally, the court dismissed the conspiracy claim, concluding that “there can be no conspiracy between the School District and its officers, employees, and Board of Education members because they are considered a single entity. See Hull v. Cayuga Valley Bd. of Educ., 926 F.2d 505, 509-10 (6th Cir. 1991) (citing Herrmann v. Moore, 576 F.2d 453, 459 (2d Cir. 1978).”
Cioffi vs Averill Park Central School District Board of Education et al.; N.D.N.Y.;1:02-CV-887; 9/30/04
Attorneys of Record: (for Plaintiff) Phillip G. Steck of Cooper, Erving & Savage, LLP, Albany, New York. (for Defendants) Beth A. Bourassa of Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna LLP, Albany, New York.