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Hashem v. Hunterdon Central Regional High School Board of Education

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 30, 2019

SIREEN SAWALHA HASHEM, Plaintiff,
v.
HUNTERDON CENTRAL REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL BOARD OF EDUCATION, et. al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          Freda L. Wolfson United States District Judge.

         In this employment discrimination suit, Plaintiff Sireen Sawalha Hashem (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Hashem”), an Arab Muslim woman of Palestinian descent, alleges that her former employers, Hunterdon Central Regional High School (“Hunterdon Central”) and Hunterdon Central Regional High School Board of Education (the “Board”), as well as her former supervisors, Christina Steffner, Suzanne Cooley, and Rebecca Lucas (the Board, Steffner, Cooley, and Lucas, cumulatively referred to as “Defendants”), discriminated and retaliated against Plaintiff on the basis of her race, religion, and national origin, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1963, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (“Title VI”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. § 10:5-3, et seq. (“NJLAD”). Defendants now move for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in its entirety.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Plaintiff was born in Kafir Rai, and she identifies as an Arab Muslim woman. Defendants' Statement of Material Facts (“Defs.' Facts”), ¶¶ 1, 2. Plaintiff was initially employed as a Student Teacher at Hunterdon Central from January 2013 through May 2013, until she was offered and accepted a full-time position as a U.S. History teacher in the Social Studies Department, which position commenced in September 2013. Id. at ¶¶ 3-4. Robert Zywicki (“Mr. Zywicki”), who was the supervisor of social studies, originally served as Plaintiff's immediate supervisor for a period of approximately three months, until he left Hunterdon Central in November 2013. Id. at ¶ 5.

         On October 13, 2013, Plaintiff incorporated a video into her U.S. History lesson plan pertaining to Malala Yousafzai (the “Malala Video”), [1] which was previously used by Lindsay Warren (“Ms. Warren”), another teacher at Hunterdon Central. Id. at ¶ 7. Subsequently, an unidentified parent complained about a comment that Plaintiff allegedly made during a class discussion which followed the Malala Video, i.e., the manner in which a woman dresses is a method of rape prevention.[2] Id. at ¶ 8.

         Mr. Zywicki had a conversation with Plaintiff to address the parent's complaint, but the parties dispute the events which then occurred. Id. at ¶ 9. According to Defendants, Mr. Zywicki informed Plaintiff, in a written communication, that he had accepted her representation that the parent's complaint was inaccurate, and he advised her to “simply be aware of the different messages that students might take away from current event conversations.” Id. at ¶¶ 9-10. However, in addition to these written statements, Plaintiff maintains that Mr. Zywicki “simultaneously told” her that she “wasn't Lindsay, ” and he forbade her from referencing the “Near East” or “Islam.” Pl.'s Counterstatement of Material Facts (“Pl.'s Facts”), ¶ 10. Nonetheless, Plaintiff admits she was subsequently invited by the school to share her personal story with a class of students, and she assisted in separate lessons that pertained to the history and politics of Kafir Rai and Islam. Defs. Facts, ¶ 11.

         On February 2, 2014, defendant Rebecca Lucas (“Ms. Lucas”) replaced Dr. Zywicki as the supervisor of social studies for Hunterdon Central. Id. at ¶ 13. In March 2014, a parent complained to “non-Arab, non-Muslim, non-Palestinian teachers” about the use of the novel “The Lemon Tree, ” in a classroom where Plaintiff served as a translator during a webcam session with the book's protagonist. Id. at ¶¶ 14, 16. Plaintiff does not dispute that the parent's complaint was in writing, and it neither referenced Plaintiff nor the translation services which she provided. Id. at ¶ 15. Rather, Plaintiff maintains that she never read the parent's written complaint. Pl's. Facts, ¶ 15.

         In May 2014, an incident occurred where Plaintiff's students apparently misunderstood her lesson about the actions of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, prompting a debate about whether Osama bin Laden was a terrorist; Plaintiff, in no way, intended to suggest Osama bin Laden was not a terrorist. Id. at ¶ 17. Plaintiff's contract was renewed for the following 2014/2015 school year, and she was assigned to teach U.S. History and Global Studies. Id. at ¶ 20. Plaintiff does not dispute the renewal of her contract, but she clarifies that she was “offered a position” for the new school year prior to the “John Brown/Osama bin Laden” incident. Pl's. Facts, at ¶ 20.

         The parties dispute the events which occurred on September 8, 2014, during the first week of Plaintiff's second year of teaching. According to Defendants, some of Plaintiff's Jewish students construed Plaintiff's comments, during a class, as having asked them to identify their religious affiliations. Defs. Facts, at ¶ 21. Although Plaintiff denies this fact, she admits that a parent whose child was allegedly questioned subsequently wrote a complaint, in which the parent expressed her disapproval and notified the school that her daughter's civil rights had been violated. Id. At ¶ 22. Other parents whose children were allegedly questioned requested to have their children removed from Plaintiff's classroom. Id. at ¶ 24.

         On September 8, 2014, in a Facebook post, a student alleged that Plaintiff's brother was a terrorist. Id. at ¶ 25. Plaintiff's mentor re-published the Facebook post to a classroom which was taught by two of his colleagues, after which all three individuals were reprimanded for such actions. Id. at ¶¶ 28-29. The Facebook post, as well as the aforementioned parent's written complaint, were addressed by the school during two meetings with Plaintiff on September 9, 2014, one of which was recorded, and during a third recorded meeting on September 11, 2014. Id. at ¶ 30.

         Plaintiff was called over the telephone to attend the recorded meeting on September 9, 2014, which took place in Defendant Cooley's office.[3] Id. at ¶ 31. During the meeting, the following information was relayed to Plaintiff: a “call had been made [to the District's attorney] to find out what could be done about the Facebook post”; “we do not condone this behavior”; and “we will do what we can in terms of what the attorney says we can do.” Id. at ¶¶ 32-33. Plaintiff was also provided with an opportunity to explain the lesson which prompted some students to believe that they had been asked to identify their religious affiliations. Id. at ¶ 34. Defendants explain that, at no point during this meeting was Plaintiff accused of discriminating against Jewish children, nor did they suggest that Plaintiff intended to “single [Jewish children] out by religion.” Id. at ¶¶ 36-37. However, Plaintiff maintains that “a reasonable person in her circumstances could feel and believe that” various unspecified “portions of the conversation were accusatory.” Pl.'s Facts, ¶ 36.

         During the meeting on September 11, 2014, Plaintiff was again informed that the student's Facebook post was “unacceptable, ” and that the student's mother “was horrified and conveyed her apologies.” Defs.' Facts, ¶ 38. In addition, while Defendants stated that they could not punish the student, because his Facebook post was allegedly protected by the First Amendment, Plaintiff was advised, on multiple occasions, that she could contact her union in order to determine if she had a private cause of action. Id. at ¶¶ 39-40. The parties dispute the manner in which the remainder of the meeting was conducted. According to Defendants, although Plaintiff's brother was discussed, it was only within the context of the student's Facebook post, and Plaintiff was never questioned about him; rather, Plaintiff voluntarily shared information about him. Id. at ¶¶ 41-42. However, Plaintiff avers that there was a “lengthy colloquy” about Plaintiff's brother, during which “Defendants fully engaged in that process and asked her questions.” Pl.'s Facts, ¶¶ 41-42.

         Furthermore, in the beginning of the 2014/2015 school year, Plaintiff engaged in a lengthy email exchange with a student's parent, lasting for a period of more than several months. Defs.' Facts, at ¶ 44. Plaintiff subsequently wrote to her mentor, Mr. DeTample, and stated that “I cannot deal with this mom. I'm not going to reply to her at all.” Id. Defendants also chronicle an incident wherein Plaintiff allegedly used a paper which the student wrote as an exemplar in a class, in order to embarrass that student. Plaintiff explains that the supervisor of the English Department recommended that she provide examples of “A, ” “B, ” and “C” papers to her students for educational purposes. Id. at ¶ 44; Pl.'s Facts, ¶ 44.

         The parties also dispute an incident which allegedly occurred during an unspecified time of Plaintiff's second year of teaching. According to Defendants, Plaintiff mistreated a student with accommodations mandated by Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “Section 504 student”), after which her mother requested to have her removed from Plaintiff's classroom. Id. at ¶¶ 48-49. Conversely, Plaintiff disputes that she mistreated the Section 504 student, and, according to Plaintiff, the guidance counselor actually suggested to remove the Section 504 student from her classroom, and that the Section 504 student's mother merely concurred with that recommendation. Pl.'s Facts, ¶ 49.

         On April 14, 2015, Plaintiff received an email from Defendant Lucas, informing her of a meeting scheduled for April 16, 2015, and her right to be represented by a member of the union. Defs.' Facts, ¶¶ 56-57. Plaintiff attended the meeting with Adam Leonard, a colleague and union representative, during which Defendant Lucas informed Plaintiff that her contract for the following school year would not be renewed. Id. at ¶ 59. During the relevant timeframe, three other non-tenured social studies teachers, like Plaintiff, did not have their contracts renewed-they were all “Caucasian, non-Arab, non-Muslim and non-Palestinian.” Id. at ¶ 52. Moreover, two of the non-tenured social studies teachers were male, while the remaining one was female. Id. at ¶¶ 53-54.

         On April 21, 2015, Defendant Steffner provided Plaintiff with written notice of the non-renewal. Id. at ¶ 60. On May 18, 2015, Plaintiff received a second notice, wherein Defendant Steffner stated the reasons for non-renewal, and she advised Plaintiff of her right to request that the Board review the decision. Id. at ¶ 61.

         On June 15, 2015, Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before the Board in order to overturn the non-renewal of her contract. Id. at ¶ 62. On the advice of her union representative, Plaintiff chose to have the hearing conducted in a private executive session, which was only attended by the following parties: Board members and counsel, Plaintiff and her union representative, and Defendant Steffner. Id. at ¶¶ 63-65. On June 17, 2015, Defendant Steffner provided Plaintiff with written notice, which stated that “the Board did not vote to overrule the recommendation that your employment contract be non-renewed for the 2015-2016 school year, ” and that her employment would end on June 30, 2015. Id. at ¶ 66.

         On the last day of the 2014/2015 school year, the Section 504 student published an email post, wherein she complained that she and her mother were being blamed for the non-renewal of Plaintiff's contract. Id. at ¶ 67. A substitute teacher was subsequently assigned to Plaintiff's classroom for the remainder of the school day. Id. at ¶ 67. On July 16, 2015, two FBI agents visited Plaintiff at her home, because they received information which indicated that, while Plaintiff was at the private executive session held before the Board, she allegedly stated that “they [members of the Board] will be sorry if I am fired.” Id. at ¶ 69. Plaintiff denies having made such a statement. Pl.'s Facts, ¶ 69.

         On December 14, 2015, Plaintiff filed the instant action. In her Third Amended Complaint, Plaintiff asserts the following five causes of action against Defendants: (Count I) employment discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and religion in violation of Title VII and NJLAD; (Count II) disparate treatment in violation of Title VII and NJLAD; (Count III) retaliation in violation of Title VII and NJLAD; (Count IV) discriminatory discharge in violation of Title VII and NJLAD; and (Count V) violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the New Jersey Constitution. TAC, ¶ 52-76.

         In the instant matter, Defendants move for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff has failed to produce any admissible evidence which supports her causes of action against Defendants. In addition, Defendants contend that their decision not to renew Plaintiff's contract was based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. In Plaintiff's six-page opposition brief, Plaintiff does not address Defendant's argument concerning the sufficiency of Plaintiff's evidence to prove her prima facie case as to all the claims, but rather merely maintains that the proffered reasons for the non-renewal of her contract are pretextual. Plaintiff also submits her own sworn certification, and certifications from Derek Khoudja and Darrell DeTample, both of whom are Plaintiff's former colleagues.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary Judgment is appropriate “if 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is “a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party, ” and it is material only if it has the ability to “affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “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. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276-77 (3d Cir. 2002).

         The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of showing the basis for its motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “If the moving party will bear the burden of persuasion at trial, that party must support its motion with credible evidence . . . that would entitle it to a directed verdict if not controverted at trial.” Id. at 331. On the other hand, if the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the nonmoving party, the party moving for summary judgment may satisfy Rule 56's burden of production by either (1) “submit[ting] affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim” or (2) demonstrating “that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.” Id. Once the movant adequately supports its motion pursuant to Rule 56(c), the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to “go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324; see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Ridgewood Bd. of Ed. v. Stokley, 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999). In deciding the merits of a party's motion for summary judgment, the court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of the fact finder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

         There can be “no genuine issue as to any material fact, ” however, if a party fails “to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. “[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323; Katz v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 972 F.2d 53, 55 (3d Cir. 1992).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendants move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's Title VII and NJLAD claims, arguing that Plaintiff has failed to provide any evidence to establish a prima facia case of discrimination. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (“Defs.' Motion”), at 4-11. Defendants alternatively argue that, even if Plaintiff has satisfied her evidentiary burden on this motion, their decision not to renew her contract was motivated by legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. Id., at 12-21. Plaintiff does not respond to Defendants' ...


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