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Cuff v. Camden City School District

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 2, 2019

DR. AUDREY CUFF, Plaintiff,
v.
CAMDEN CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT and LARRY JAMES, Defendants.

          PETER M. KOBER 1864 RTE 70 EAST CHERRY HILL, N.J. 08003 On behalf of Plaintiff

          RICHARD L. GOLDSTEIN MARSHALL, DENNEHEY, WARNER, COLEMAN & GOGGIN, PA MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. 08054 On behalf of Defendants

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case concerns claims by Plaintiff, a special education teacher, that Defendants violated New Jersey's Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 et seq. (“CEPA”), as well as violated her First Amendment and Equal Protection rights. Presently before the Court is the motion of Defendants to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint in its entirety. For the reasons expressed below, Defendants' motion will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         As of June 2017, Plaintiff, Dr. Audrey Cuff, who claims to be “highly qualified to teach Language Arts and Mathematics as a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom, ”[1] was employed as a non-tenured special education teacher by Defendant Camden City School District. On June 18, 2017, Plaintiff met with the new Woodrow Wilson High School Principal, Defendant Larry James. Plaintiff claims that James stated to her that he had reviewed her qualifications and noted that Plaintiff was highly qualified in the field of special education, and that she was more qualified than him.

         On June 21, 2017, Plaintiff received her teaching schedule, which provided that she would teach Language Arts as a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom at Woodrow Wilson. Three days later, on June 24, 2017, Plaintiff received a new schedule which kept her at Woodrow Wilson but assigned her to teach Health and Chemistry as a special education teacher in a classroom shared with a general education teacher.

         Plaintiff claims that the new assignment was demeaning, and in effect a demotion, because her new assignment did not take into account her high level of qualifications in the field of special education, her specialization of teaching Language Arts and Mathematics to special education students in a self-contained classroom, and her prior record of excellence in teaching in that capacity. Plaintiff further claims that her placement in a shared classroom was an inappropriate use of government funds and a deprivation of her students' rights to have the highest level of quality special education teaching. Plaintiff additionally claims that James's reassignment of Plaintiff was motivated by an irrational “show of power” over Plaintiff because she had higher qualifications than James.

         On July 24, 2017, Plaintiff sent an email to “Lead Educator R. Martinez” expressing her opposition to her reassignment. On July 25, 2017, Plaintiff spoke with James about her reassignment who Plaintiff claims told her she was not qualified to teach special education students in the self-contained classroom, a characterization Plaintiff claims is a pretext for James's alleged “show of power.” On August 2, 2017, Plaintiff requested a transfer to a different school. Plaintiff claims that the principal of that school agreed to have Plaintiff teach in a self-contained classroom there, but the transfer was subject to approval by James. Plaintiff claims that James denied Plaintiff's transfer request.

         On September 9, 2017, Plaintiff claims that James offered her a different assignment. Plaintiff would keep her shared classroom in Science, but she would have a self-contained classroom for special education students in Creative Writing and Psychology, upon the condition that Plaintiff would write the curricula for both courses by September 11, 2017.

         Plaintiff claims that after she wrote the curricula in two days, James removed her from the Creative Writing class, and instead placed her in a shared classroom in Health. Plaintiff claims that this was demeaning and again motivated by a show of power over her.

         On September 12, 2017, Plaintiff sent an email to Central Administrator Lead Educator Dr. Michael Coleman to express her opposition to James's September 11, 2017 reassignment. Plaintiff claims that Dr. Coleman informed James about Plaintiff's opposition. On September 18 and 20, 2017, Plaintiff claims that even though James told Plaintiff that he would be ordering textbooks for her special education psychology class, they were unreasonably delayed by James.

         On September 30, 2017, Plaintiff wrote an email to Ms. Buell-Alvis, Central Administration Affirmative Action Coordinator. Plaintiff complained about her reassignments and expressed frustration over James's delay in obtaining the psychology text books, stating that she could not teach her students effectively because of James withholding her books. Months later, toward the end of the school year on May 9, 2018, Plaintiff's employment with the Camden City School District was not renewed.

         Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff claims that the Camden City School District and James have violated CEPA and Plaintiff's First Amendment and Equal Protection rights by subjecting her to numerous adverse employment actions despite her protected activity, which included voicing her opposition to her reassignments and informing the affirmative action coordinator about her inability to effectively teach her class due to the withholding of her textbooks. Defendants have moved to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint on all counts. Plaintiff has opposed Defendants' motion.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Subject matter jurisdiction

         This Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

         B. Standard for Motion to Dismiss

         When considering a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 351 (3d Cir. 2005). It is well settled that a pleading is sufficient if it contains “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do . . . .” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (alteration in original) (citations omitted) (first citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957); Sanjuan v. Am. Bd. of Psychiatry & Neurology, Inc., 40 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 1994); and then citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).

To determine the sufficiency of a complaint, a court must take three steps. First, the court must “tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Second, the court should identify allegations that, “because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Third, “whe[n] there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should ...

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