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Azar v. Town of Lincoln

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

December 7, 2017

Pamela Azar
Town of Lincoln, et al.

         Providence County, PC 12-4093 Superior Court Bennett R. Gallo Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Pamela M. Azar, Pro Se

          For Defendants: Kathleen A. Hilton, Esq. Marc Desisto, Esq. Andrew Henneous, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.



         Pamela Azar (plaintiff or Azar), a former employee of the Town of Lincoln School Department, appeals the Superior Court's grant of a motion for judgment as a matter of law in favor of the defendants, Town of Lincoln, Lincoln School Committee, and John Ward, in his official capacity as Finance Director for the Town of Lincoln (collectively, Lincoln or defendants) in an employment discrimination action. The plaintiff appears before us pro se. This case came before the Supreme Court on November 2, 2017, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After hearing the parties' arguments and reviewing their memoranda, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown. Accordingly, we shall decide this appeal at this time without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         On August 8, 2012, Azar filed a complaint in Providence County Superior Court alleging claims of employment discrimination pursuant to the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act (RICRA), G.L. 1956 chapter 112 of title 42, and the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities Act (CRPDA), G.L. 1956 chapter 87 of title 42. She argued that she was discriminated against because she advocated for education services for her disabled son who was a student in the Lincoln school system. Specifically, plaintiff contended that the Lincoln School Department filed truancy charges with respect to her son's absences as retaliation.[1]

         At a jury trial in June 2016, where she was represented by an attorney, plaintiff testified to various actions taken by teachers and the school principal, which amounted to what she considered a hostile work environment. All the instances about which plaintiff testified occurred after Lincoln filed truancy charges in 2006 against her son and lasted until plaintiff took a leave of absence in 2008. For example, plaintiff described how other teachers treated her, including ignoring her at meetings and excluding her from positions she previously held. The plaintiff also said that the Special Education Department often summoned her during her workday to attend to issues regarding her son's education, and plaintiff recalled being called to the main office over the intercom, which was not a common practice. Azar, in reaction to these occurrences, testified that she told the principal that she was feeling "isolated by the teachers, " but that he responded that he did not "want to get involved."

         The plaintiff also testified regarding the 2009 truancy charges Lincoln filed against her in response to her son's failure to attend school for much of the 2008-2009 school year. She stated that in the fall of 2008, she had started exploring other placements for her son, and she disagreed with Lincoln's choice of placement at the Bradley School.[2] As a result, she appealed it to federal court, and, in the interim, a hearing on the truancy charges was conducted in October 2009. At the hearing, a Family Court justice ordered that plaintiff's son be placed at the Wolf School[3] for forty-five days. Azar testified that the justice commented that he could not "comprehend" why Lincoln took so long to file the truancy charges. Over the next year, the parties returned to the Family Court at least three times to reassess Azar's son's educational placement. In October 2010, the charges were dismissed. However, Azar testified that Lincoln wanted to drop the charges earlier, but she requested that the charges not be dropped because she wanted to "stay under the protection of the Family Court" to ensure her son's placement at the Wolf School.

         In addition to plaintiff's testimony, Mary Ann Canning McComiskey, the teachers' union president and a school social worker in Lincoln, testified for plaintiff at the trial. She recalled that members of the school community were well aware of Azar's "difficulties" with Lincoln regarding her son. McComiskey, sensing the less-than-harmonious relationships between Azar and other teachers, spoke to teachers and the principal about the matter. She stated that, during her conversation with the principal, he was unable to justify why Azar had been called to the office over the intercom. McComiskey recalled explaining to the school superintendent in either 2005 or 2006 that Azar was being "socially isolated" and that the superintendent responded that Azar was "crazy."

         The defense called three witnesses to testify: Maryann Strubel, the director of student services; and Barbara Marsden and Kristen Lowe, two teachers who had worked with Azar. Marsden and Lowe both testified that Azar had changed during the 2006-2007 school year, transforming every conversation into one about her son, causing both teachers to try to change the topic or avoid Azar altogether.

         After both sides rested, defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. The trial justice found that the statute of limitations did not bar plaintiff's action with respect to the 2009 truancy charges, but did bar her claims for the 2006 truancy charges.[4] As a result, the trial justice considered whether plaintiff had satisfied her burden of proving that defendants subjected her to a hostile work environment such that a reasonable jury could find that defendants had discriminated against her based on her advocacy for her son. The trial justice concluded that plaintiff had not met that burden. He also analyzed whether plaintiff had met her burden under a retaliation claim analysis, ruling that the evidence showed that Lincoln had legal justification to bring the truancy charges based on her son's extended absence during the 2008-2009 school year. He found that the 2009 truancy charges were not in retaliation for Azar's advocacy for her son. The trial justice ultimately granted defendants' motion.

         On appeal, plaintiff contends that the trial justice erred in granting the motion for judgment as a matter of law because, in her view, she presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find in her ...

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