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Curcio v. Collingswood Board of Education

June 28, 2006


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


This matter comes before the Court upon motions for partial summary judgment by Plaintiff Daniel Curcio ("Plaintiff") and Defendants Collingswood Board of Education (the "Board") and the Superintendent of Schools for the Board, James H. Bathurst ("Bathurst")(the Board and Bathurst will be referred to collectively as the "Defendants.") Specifically, the Court will address (1) the parties' cross-motions for partial summary judgment related to Plaintiff's claim that Defendants violated the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") by refusing to allow Plaintiff to return to work after a medical leave of absence (Count I of Plaintiff's Complaint) and (2) Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claims of wrongful termination in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD") (Counts II and IV).

From September, 2000 through early 2003, Plaintiff was a non-tenured Spanish teacher at Collingswood High School in Collingswood, New Jersey. (Pl.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Pl.'s SUF") ¶ 5.) Plaintiff was employed by the Board and the Superintendent of Schools for the Board was James Bathurst.*fn1

Plaintiff alleges that, because Plaintiff is openly homosexual and communicated as much to his students, he became the target of harassment from his fellow teachers and school administrators in the Collingswood school district. As a result of the alleged harassment, Plaintiff suffered severe anxiety attacks that required him to take a leave of absence during January and February of 2003. At the conclusion of Plaintiff's leave, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants (1) refused to allow him to return to work and (2) terminated him (by failing to renew his teaching contract) in violation of the FMLA and NJLAD.

For the reasons expressed in this Opinion, the Court finds that Plaintiff's leave of absence qualifies as medical leave under the FMLA and, by refusing to allow him to return to work after his doctor provided medical clearance, Defendants interfered with Plaintiff's rights under the FMLA. As such, the Court will grant Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment as to Count I. Because genuine issues of material fact exists surrounding Plaintiff's claims of retaliation under the FMLA and wrongful termination in violation of the NJLAD, the Court will deny Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment as to Counts II and IV.*fn2


A. The 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 School Years

Plaintiff began teaching at Collingswood High School in September of 2000. (Certification of Lisa S. Grosskreutz, Ex. A.) The events relevant to this litigation, however, began in February or March of 2002. Plaintiff, who is homosexual, (Amended Compl. ¶ 9), encountered a group of students and alumni of Collingswood High School in what Plaintiff described as "a gay coffeehouse" in Philadelphia where Plaintiff was dining with his boyfriend. (Grosskreutz Cert., Ex. B., Deposition Transcript of Daniel Curcio at 93-95.) In the weeks following this encounter, Plaintiff claims that he overheard comments and heard rumors circulating among students in the school that Plaintiff was homosexual. (Id.) At the time, Plaintiff had not disclosed his sexual orientation to either the students or faculty of the school. (Id. at 103-04.)

On March 13, 2002, in response to a question from a student, Plaintiff informed his Spanish class that he was homosexual. (Id. at 122-23.) Plaintiff then briefly discussed his homosexuality and identity as a homosexual male with his class. (Id.) The following day, Plaintiff had similar discussions with his other Spanish classes. (Id.) On the evening of March 14, 2002, Superintendent Bathurst and Dr. Thomas Anderson (the Collingswood school district affirmative action officer) were notified that Plaintiff had discussed his homosexuality with a number of his classes and that Plaintiff had called two television news stations inquiring whether they wished to do a story about Plaintiff's discussions with his classes. (Id. at 148-51; Grosskreutz Cert. Ex. D, Deposition Transcript of Dr. Thomas Anderson at 15-19.) On March 15, 2002, Dr. Anderson spoke with Plaintiff about his class discussions. (Anderson Depo. Tr. at 15-19.)

On March 20, 2002, Bathurst met with Plaintiff, Charles Earling (principal of Collingswood High School), and Robert Barikian (president of Plaintiff's union). (Grosskreutz Cert., Ex. C., Deposition Transcript of James Bathurst at 7-8.) Following the meeting, Plaintiff was issued a formal reprimand for using class time to discuss issues not connected to his classes' curriculum. (Id.) The reprimand also warned Plaintiff that if a similar event occurred in the future, the Board would take additional disciplinary action. (Id.)

On April 18, 2002, Plaintiff was involved in an altercation with a fellow teacher that led to Plaintiff meeting with Dr. Anderson and Collingswood High School vice-principal Karen Principato. (Anderson Depo. Tr. at 21-24; Grosskreutz Cert. I, Deposition Transcript of Karen Principato at 11-16.) At the meeting, Plaintiff complained that he was regularly harassed at the school. (Id.) At the conclusion of the meeting, Bathurst was contacted and he requested to speak with Plaintiff about Plaintiff's allegations. (Id.) Plaintiff refused to speak with Bathurst and, consequently, was placed on administrative leave. Ultimately, Plaintiff met with Bathurst, Dr. Anderson and Barikian on April 22, 2002. (Curcio Depo. Tr. at 46.) At the conclusion of the meeting, Plaintiff was instructed to report immediately any concerns he had or incidents where he was harassed to Dr. Anderson and Bathurst. (Id.) On April 23, 2002, Plaintiff returned from administrative leave. (Id.)

On May 22, 2002, Plaintiff met with Dr. Anderson. During the three-hour meeting, Plaintiff detailed the alleged incidents of harassment and Plaintiff's concerns regarding a hostile environment at the school. (Grosskreutz Cert. E., Investigation Report of Dr. Anderson.) As a result of this meeting, Dr. Anderson launched an investigation into Plaintiff's concerns and, upon its conclusion, drafted a lengthy report summarizing his findings. (Anderson Report at 1.) A copy of the report was forwarded to Plaintiff and the Board. (Id.) The report cited certain events that Plaintiff claimed created a hostile work environment, including:

* Plaintiff overheard a conversation between two teachers where one teacher commented that a picture of two wrestlers in the Collingswood High School yearbook looked like the wrestlers were engaged in homosexual sex;

* Plaintiff claims that a hostile work environment exists because 20% of the faculty "were against" Plaintiff's decision to discuss his sexual orientation with his class;

* Plaintiff overheard a conversation between two teachers in which one teacher assigned detention to several students who told the teacher that he "look[ed] gay" because he was wearing a yellow shirt;

* Plaintiff received a "big wave and hello" from a fellow teacher (which Plaintiff felt was exaggerated and out of the ordinary);

* Plaintiff states that a Spanish teacher was rude and inattentive to him after the faculty learned of Plaintiff's sexual orientation;

* Plaintiff heard a teacher say, "shh - he's coming," as he entered the student lounge;

* Plaintiff alleges that a fellow teacher intentionally bumped him while the two were on hall duty;

* Plaintiff alleges that the written reprimand he received from Bathurst on March 28, 2002 was "negative, hostile and homophobic;" and

* Plaintiff alleges that he has had a number of confrontations with other teachers, and that, after Plaintiff revealed that he was homosexual, teachers once ...

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