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Veggian v. Camden Board of Education

February 23, 2009

PAULA VEGGIAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CAMDEN BOARD OF EDUCATION, ANNETTE KNOX, FRED REISS, LUIS PAGAN, CAMDEN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, AND CLARALIENE GORDON DEFENDANTS/COUNTERCLAIMANTS.



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

OPINION

Before the Court is defendants Camden Board of Education, Annette Knox, Fred Reiss, and Luis Pagan's ("CBOE" or "CBOE defendants") motion for summary judgment, defendants Camden Education Association and Claraliene Gordon's ("CEA" or "CEA defendants") motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, the CBOE defendants' motion is granted, the CEA defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part, and plaintiff's cross-motion is denied.

I. JURISDICTION

Plaintiff has filed an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and, therefore, this Court exercises subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question jurisdiction).

II. BACKGROUND

The facts of this case were set forth in this Court's earlier Opinion deciding the CEA defendants' motion to dismiss. They are repeated here as they also pertain to the pending motions for summary judgment.

This case arises out of plaintiff's reporting of an alleged grade fixing scheme at Brimm Medical Arts High School ("Brimm") in Camden, New Jersey. Plaintiff, a certified teacher in the City of Camden School District for 39 years, claims that in the Spring of 2004, when she was performing her duties as a "scheduler" for Brimm, which included printing final report cards, she discovered discrepancies between the computer generated final grade reports and the students' transcripts.

Plaintiff reported her discovery to her immediate supervisors. As a result, plaintiff claims that she was retaliated against by defendants for reporting the grade altering, which resulted in a hostile work environment, as well as an involuntary transfer and demotion.

Plaintiff originally filed a complaint against defendants Camden Board of Education, Annette Knox, Superintendent of the Camden School District, Fred Reiss, Assistant Superintendent for Administration and Support Services of the Camden School District, and Luis Pagan, Assistant Superintendent for the Camden Board of Education, bringing claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of her First Amendment rights and her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. Two years later, plaintiff was granted leave to amend her complaint to add as defendants the Camden Education Association, the collective bargaining unit and representative for educational employees within the City of Camden Public School District, and Claraliene Gordon, President of the CEA during the relevant time period. In her amended complaint, plaintiff has asserted First and Fourteenth Amendment violations pursuant to § 1983 against all defendants as well as a claim for breach of the duty of fair representation against the CEA and Gordon. Following the filing of plaintiff's amended complaint, the CEA and Gordon moved to dismiss her claims pursuant to Federal Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6), which motion was denied by this Court.

Both sets of defendants now move for summary judgment and plaintiff cross moves for summary judgment against the CEA defendants.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).

An issue is "genuine" if it is supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party's evidence "is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Marino v. Industrial Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004)(quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).

Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57. A party opposing summary judgment must do more than just rest upon mere allegations, general denials, or vague statements. Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001).

If review of cross-motions for summary judgment reveals no genuine issue of material fact, then judgment may be entered in favor of the party deserving of judgment in light of the law and undisputed facts. See Iberia Foods Corp. v. Romeo Jr., 150 F.3d 298, 302 (3d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).

B. First Amendment

Plaintiff alleges in her amended complaint that defendants acted to retaliate against her and to prevent her from reporting grade manipulation, political patronage and practices within the CBOE, and that as a result of a series of newspaper articles began to penalize and retaliate against plaintiff for allegedly opposing and speaking out against defendants' actions regarding the grade manipulation. She also alleges that defendants conspired with certain faculty at Brimm and CEA officials to seek the removal of plaintiff from her position as scheduler by signing a petition opposing her reinstatement at Brimm.

There is no dispute that plaintiff was a public employee. As a public employee, certain restrictions are placed on plaintiff as concerns her right to exercise her freedom of speech. See Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 417 (2006) (stating that the long-standing view that a public employee had no right to object to conditions placed upon the terms of employment including restrictions on exercising constitutional rights has been tempered so that "... public employees do not surrender all their First Amendment rights by reason of their employment."). One exception is when a public employee speaks as a citizen addressing matters of public concern. Id. "A public employee's statement is protected activity when (1) in making it, the employee spoke as a citizen, (2) the statement involved a matter of public concern, and (3) the government employer did not have 'an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the general public' as a result of the statement he made." Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 242 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 410). In assessing the government entity's justification, the focus is on the "importance of the relationship between the speaker's expressions and employment." Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 417. "A government entity has broader discretion to restrict speech when it acts in its role as employer, but the restrictions it imposes must be directed at speech that has some potential to affect the entity's operations." Id.

The holding in Garcetti is central to this case. In Garcetti, the Supreme Court held "that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." Id. at 421. Plaintiff argues that her speech regarding the grade manipulation scheme was a matter of public concern. While that may be true, plaintiff does not appear to have been speaking as a "citizen" but rather as a public employee pursuant to ...


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