A Victory for All Involved
In this article, we share some details of our firm’s recent triumph in securing justice for a worthy pro bono client.
Recently, I had the rewarding experience of representing a former vice principal of a public middle school through a contentious litigation. My team members and I took and defended several depositions in the case and guided our client toward a successful settlement agreement. Our work was vital in not only getting our client the justice he deserved but also positively changing the trajectory of his future.
Our client, referred to us through New York Legal Assistance Group (“NYLAG”), was a roughly 70-year-old black man accused of sexually harassing a middle school principal who was his direct superior. Purportedly because of the allegations lodged against him, his employer immediately suspended him and prohibited him from returning to the school. Indeed, just one day after his suspension, our client’s office was completely dismantled and his possessions had been boxed up. A security guard even escorted him off the school premises – this was not typical recourse for alleged violators at the school district. Remarkably, all these actions preceded any investigation to confirm or deny the validity of the accusations our client faced. And although the school district could have used alternative interventions and progressive disciplinary procedures (contained in the district’s policies) to deal with the allegations, they chose to bypass their own policies and, instead, suspended our client instantaneously. For example, the school district avoided giving our client – who had never had any complaints lodged against him in his 17 years of work for the district – verbal warnings and reprimands, skipping right to suspension. The district justified the suspension as necessary to protect the principal from “further harm” – despite the only grounds for our client’s suspension was the principal’s word against his.
An investigation ultimately proceeded, but because of the actions the school had already taken against our client (i.e., immediate suspension and dismantling of his office), he had already been constructively terminated. The results of the investigation found that our client violated the district’s sexual harassment policy and that he had otherwise “engaged in conduct unbecoming an administrator that constitutes inappropriate workplace conduct.” The school district subsequently initiated a disciplinary proceeding under Education Law § 3020, alleging 10 separate charges of misconduct (but none relating to sexual harassment) and sought the most severe penalty – termination. The hearing officer overseeing the disciplinary proceeding sustained six of the 10 charges concerning misconduct “unbecoming an administrator” and imposed a one-month suspension without pay.
Two months after the conclusion of the disciplinary proceeding, our client filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York against the school district, its superintendent, and the school’s principal, alleging race and age discrimination, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. We worked closely with our client to prepare for his deposition, the defendants’ depositions, and the depositions of third parties, carefully constructing our strategy, which included finding ways to show disparate treatment between our client and other similarly situated individual school district employees who were not members of protected racial or age-related classes.
I defended our client’s deposition, and my team members and I took the depositions of eight different school officials. Throughout the depositions we learned that, normally, when someone brought a complaint to the attention of the school district, the district would send “warning” letters or “letters of reprimand” to the person charged with having committed the violation. Moreover, alleged violators ordinarily received cautionary letters that their behavior could result in consequences, and the allegations against them were thoroughly investigated before any action was imposed. This was true concerning allegations far worse than what our client had been accused of. We even found out that one school teacher – who had been suspended on two different occasions and received multiple letters of reprimand for, among other things, his misconduct toward seventh-grade female students – was still employed by the school district as a middle school teacher when we took his deposition.
The testimony we elicited during the depositions, specifically regarding disparate treatment, significantly helped leverage our case going into the settlement conference, where we succeeded in ending the litigation and obtaining monetary relief for our client. My experience with NYLAG was immensely gratifying, and I look forward to continuing my pro bono work.NYLAG and Robins Kaplan
Robins Kaplan LLP believes that everyone should have equal access to justice.1 As trial lawyers, we are dedicated to leveling the playing field for our pro bono clients and giving back to those in need. In furtherance of this mission, our firm regularly works with NYLAG, a New York–based nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to low-income New Yorkers. Through NYLAG, our attorneys have represented a vast array of clients and have obtained excellent litigation experience. Over the last year alone, our attorneys have helped 13 different clients through NYLAG. For more information about NYLAG, including how you can get involved, please visit the following website: https://www.nylag.org/.
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