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New York teacher’s retaliation charges reinstated

appeals court

A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court and reinstated retaliation charges filed by a New York teacher who received multiple disciplinary reprimands after filing complaints against her school district.

Michele Pistello, a teacher for the Canastota Central School District in Canastota, New York, accused the school district in a Nov. 6, 2014, email of failing to comply with the individualized education plans of certain students with disabilities, according to Friday’s ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in Michele Pistello v. The Board of Education of the Canastota Central School District.

On Feb. 27, 2015, she filed a harassment report, according to the ruling.

Ms. Pistello subsequently filed suit against the school district  in U.S. District Court in Albany, New York, on charges including retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act for retaliation following the 2014 email, and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for retaliation following the 2015 report.

The district court dismissed the charges, which were reinstated Friday by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel.

“A reasonable juror could find that the School District retaliated against Pistello for engaging in protected conduct,” the ruling said.

“In a period of approximately six months, Pistello received multiple disciplinary reprimands,” it said. In addition, the district’s director of special education conducted an in-class observation and prepared a preliminary report that arguably contained several inaccuracies, as well as an overall score that was lower than the highest possible rating, according to the ruling. Some of the observations were later removed, and the overall score changed to the highest rating, after the observations were rebutted and Ms. Pistello’s counsel talked with the director, the ruling said.

The district court “erred in resolving the ambiguities in the record in the School District’s favor rather than in Pistello’s,” the ruling said.

“In other instances, the District Court improperly assessed the weight of the evidence by stating that Pistello’s testimony ‘seems dubious when considered alongside’ contrary evidence in the record,” it said. 

“In light of, among other things, the considerable number of reprimands against Pistello occurring in a relatively short period of time after her protected conduct and that the School District constantly changed its mind about its actions towards Pistello after she retained counsel … a reasonable juror could construe these actions as materially adverse, as well as unfounded and retaliatory in nature,” the panel said in reinstating the retaliation claims.

The panel affirmed the dismissal of Ms. Pistello’s retaliatory hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims, stating she had not established the district’s actions were severe or pervasive enough to support those claims.

Attorneys in the case did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court restored federal gender and age discrimination charges filed by a former Detroit school administrator on the basis a rival candidate for a new position had been preselected.