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EMRI v. EVESHAM TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION

July 29, 2004.

BARBARA ANN EMRI, Plaintiff,
v.
EVESHAM TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, JOHN F. BIGLEY, JOHN G. DYER, III, FRANK B. SAMA, DEBORAH IEPSON, JAN RITTER, SHERRILL HUSTON, JOHN HAMPSHIRE, CAROL WAGNER, APRIL PEPPARD, DENISE JIAMPETTI, ROBIN JOHNSTON, LISA VENTURI, IRIS AUERBACH, ANGELA DENNISTON, IRENE ROMANELLI, and JOHN DOES 1-99, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JEROME SIMANDLE, District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiff, Barbara Ann Emri, a tenured teacher in Evesham Township, taught in Evesham Township's Demasi Middle School from the fall of 1998 until March 17, 2000. During her time at the Middle School, the administration received repeated complaints from parents, students, and teachers that Ms. Emri was rude to the students in her classes, including special needs students, made racist remarks while teaching, was insensitive to parental concerns, and sought to intimidate her colleagues from complaining about her conduct. As a result, on March 17, 2000, the Superintendent of Schools suspended Ms. Emri and notified her that the Board of Education intended to initiate tenure dismissal charges.

  A tenure dismissal charge for "conduct unbecoming a teacher" was filed against Ms. Emri on May 12, 2000, which included fifty-six incidents for which the Board believed Ms. Emri had conducted herself in a manner "unbecoming a teacher." The charge has been litigated before the Board of Education, the Commissioner of Education, the Office of Administrative Law, the State Board of Education, and finally, before the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division in an appeal filed on January 13, 2004. Presently, it is undisputed that Ms. Emri conducted herself in a manner unbecoming a teacher during twenty-one of the fifty-six initially alleged incidents, as the sole issue pending on appeal relates to the appropriate penalty for her conduct on those occasions.

  Meanwhile, Ms. Emri filed the present suit on March 15, 2002, in New Jersey Superior Court, Burlington County, alleging that the defendants, all employees of the Evesham Township School District,*fn1 violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, and her First Amendment right to free speech, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, by pursuing the tenure charges, and are also "liable to Plaintiff for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Interference with Contract & Economic Opportunity, Defamation and False Light, Invasion of Privacy, Abuse of Process,*fn2 and for any other causes of action allowed by law." (Complaint ¶ 73.)

  The defendants removed the action to federal court on August 21, 2002, and filed the present motion for summary judgment on June 18, 2004. [Docket Item 15-1.] The defendants seek summary judgment in their favor on all charges; the plaintiff only opposes summary judgment as to the due process and malicious prosecution claims. The Court heard the arguments of counsel on July 21, 2004, and, for the reasons stated herein, will grant summary judgment in favor of the defendants and will dismiss plaintiff's complaint with prejudice.

  I. BACKGROUND

  In 1994, plaintiff Barbara Ann Emri, then teaching a Fourth Grade class at the Beeler Elementary School, achieved tenure status in the Evesham Township School District. (Undisputed Facts ¶ 2.) She received positive evaluations, maintained a "good rapport with her children, parents and colleagues," and "showed concern for all students." (Pl. Exs. 2, 6, 7.) Ms. Emri was then transferred to teach a Sixth Grade class the Demasi Middle School for the 1998-1999 school year, (Undisputed Facts ¶ 3), where the problems underlying this lawsuit began.

  Almost immediately, administrators at the Demasi Middle School had begun receiving complaints about Ms. Emri's treatment of her students. On October 16, 1998, Defendants Frank Sama, School Principal, and Deborah Iepson, School Vice-Principal, met with Ms. Emri about an October 1st complaint that Ms. Emri had been unresponsive and rude to a student's questions and about an October 15th complaint that Ms. Emri had belittled a student's spelling skills in front of her classmates, allegations that Ms. Emri denied. (Undisputed Facts ¶¶ 5-7.) On November 18, 1998, Vice-Principal Iepson met with Ms. Emri again about a complaint that Ms. Emri had taken the coat of a special needs student who had taken another student's pen, and "scream[ed] that [he] needs to learn that he can't have the coat if he takes the pen." (Id. ¶¶ 8-12; Donio Cert., Ex. E.) Again, Ms. Emri denied the allegations. (Pl. Facts ¶¶ 9, 11.)

  The complaints about Ms. Emri continued and, on January 21, 1999, Principal Sama and Vice-Principal Iepson met with Ms. Emri and a teachers' union representative about ten additional parent complaints, involving allegations that she had an inappropriate demeanor toward children, that she was abrupt, argumentative, and unreceptive to parental concerns, and that she sought retribution against any student who complained about her. (Pl. Ex. 11; Donio Cert., Exs. F, G.) These four individuals met again in February, March, and April 1999, to "discuss ways Ms. Emri might change matters for the better." (Id., Exs. H, I.)

  The administration continued to receive complaints about Ms. Emri. Vice-Principal Iepson, on Ms. Emri's June 21, 1999 performance evaluation, wrote that Ms. Emri "has experienced difficulty in attempting to maintain a positive and comfortable classroom environment for some of her students," that "[t]here are documented incidents when [Ms. Emri] has made parents and students feel uncomfortable about their concerns," and that she "tends to experience difficulty with the same students once a concern has been raised." (Pl. Ex. 13.) Ms. Emri opposed the review and stated that she had been "unfairly and incorrectly accused" as the complaints about her conduct were "not true and blown out of proportion by students and parents." (Id.)

  The administration continued to document complaints about Ms. Emri. During the spring of 1999, for example, Vice Principal Iepson reported that when she asked Ms. Emri about a certain student, she responded that "he is just your typical nigger." (Donio Cert., Ex. L at 5.) Then, in the fall of 1999, students complained that, when studying a book on racial tolerance entitled The Cay, Ms. Emri told them that she once had taught African American students who "seemed fascinated with the texture of [her] hair" and acted like "little monkeys picking their heads." (Id.)

  The complaints continued and, by early 2000, nine children had been removed from her classes because they "become so intimidated by [Ms. Emri] that they feared coming to school" and would sometimes feign illness so that they would not need to attend her class. (Donio Cert., Exs. L, O.)

  As a result, on March 17, 2000, Superintendent Bigley met with Ms. Emri and informed her that she was being suspended with pay as he intended to file tenure dismissal charges against her. (Id., Exs. J, K, L.) At the meeting Mr. Bigley read Ms. Emri the following statement:
The purpose of this meeting is very serious. Effective immediately you are suspended, with pay, from your teaching duties. You have a letter that details the reasons for this action. Many of your colleagues have stepped forward to describe and express concern regarding your treatment of students. More than 30 students/parents have also expressed concerns.
I intend to file tenure dismissal charges with the Board Secretary by next Friday, March 24, 2000. Between now and then you will be given the opportunity to resign your position. It is my hope that this will occur.
You will be escorted back to your classroom to remove your personal items from the room. You are to return your keys and roll book. You are to have no contact with any of the involved students, staff, parents or administrators of the district. You are not permitted in or around any of the district facilities.
I regret having to take this action, but the facts made it necessary for the best interest of the children, staff and school district.
(Id., Ex. K.) Mr. Bigley provided Ms. Emri with a fifteen-page single-spaced letter detailing the complaints received about her between November 1998 and March 14, 2000, which caused the administration to believe that she had "consistently and repeatedly mistreated children" and should be removed from her position. (Id., Ex. L.) Ms. Emri was then escorted to her classroom and from the school premises. (Undisputed Facts ¶ 29.) She continued to receive full pay and benefits during this initial period of suspension. (Donio Cert., Ex. K.)

  Ms. Emri did not file a letter of resignation, so the Board of Education filed tenure dismissal charges against her on May 12, 2000 which detailed fifty-six counts of "conduct unbecoming a teacher." (Id., Ex. M.) The charges were separated into categories of "inappropriate behavior towards students," "inappropriate treatment of colleagues," and "insubordination to administrators." (Id.) Ms. Emri was served a notice of the tenure charges, a written statement of the charges, and a copy of the verified statements of evidence on which the charges were based. (Id.) The verified statements of evidence were provided by Principal Sama, Vice-Principal Iepson, Superintendent Bigley, and teachers Iris Auerbach, Irene Romanelli, Lisa Venturi, Robin Johnston, and Denise Jiampetti, all defendants in this action. (Id.) Ms. Emri was provided fifteen days to file a written statement of her position and evidence in her defense, and was informed that the matter would be considered at a special meeting convened on May 30, 2000. (Id.)

  In response to the charges, Ms. Emri sent a letter to the Board on May 22, 2000 stating that:
Needless to say, Ms. Emri denies each and every one of the charges set forth in the "complaint" prepared by the Board's lawyer. There appears to be no purpose in laying out Ms. Emri's defense in detail at this juncture since it is painfully obvious that the Board and its administration have already determined to certify charges against her. . . .
Fortunately, Ms. Emri's fate will not lie in the hands of this Board. . . . The case will be heard by an administrative law judge and any determination reviewed by the Commissioner of Education. Each and every one of Ms. Emri's accusers will be required to testify in the tenure proceeding and Ms. Emri will have the opportunity to confront and cross-examine them. Ms. Emri looks forward to this opportunity. . . .
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