Teaching Profession

Supreme Court Declines to Review Bias Case of 5 Rochester Teachers

By Caroline Hendrie — March 30, 2005 2 min read
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Five white teachers who accused the Rochester, N.Y., school district and the local teachers’ union there of job-related racial discrimination extended their long legal losing streak last week when they struck out at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Decrying the cases brought by four of the five teachers as “frivolous from beginning to end,” a federal appeals court last year upheld decisions by a U.S. District Court judge in Buffalo, N.Y., in favor of the 34,000-student district and the Rochester Teachers Association.

The five teachers, all represented by the same Rochester lawyer in four separate lawsuits, had asked the high court to review unanimous rulings last year by two panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City. One panel had upheld summary judgments against four of the teachers—Richard W. Seils, Lois Vreeland, Mary Lou Bliss, and Nancy L. Coons—and the other made a similar finding in a case brought by the fifth, Donald Murphy.

The Supreme Court declined without comment on March 21 to consider their appeal in Seils v. Rochester City School District (Case No. 04-807).

In throwing out all the cases, U.S. District Judge David G. Larimer found in three rulings in 2002 and 2003 that the suits were both procedurally flawed and substantively groundless.

Echoing that conclusion, an appeals court panel held that the first four teachers’ cases were frivolous. The panel suggested sanctions against their lawyer, Emmelyn Logan-Baldwin, under a federal rule requiring lawyers to ensure that their suits are firmly grounded in facts and the law.

Lawyers who run afoul of Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure can be ordered to pay defendants’ legal costs, among other sanctions. A lawyer for the Rochester district said last week that the school system is seeking reimbursement for roughly $1 million in legal costs in all five cases, while the union is seeking about $500,000 from Mr. Murphy’s case alone.

Bias Claims Vary

In their Supreme Court appeal, the teachers said the 2nd Circuit court gave their cases cursory consideration, and they accused Judge Larimer of undue hostility. They argued that they had all been “severely harmed” by policies and practices of the district that were condoned by the union. The harms cited include the beating of one teacher by a student and the alleged sexual harassment of another by her school’s principal.

Although their circumstances varied, the teachers all claimed harm from a Rochester district policy aimed at boosting the ranks of nonwhite faculty members in some schools. They also claimed other types of bias, including discrimination based on sex, age, and disability.

Separately last week, the high court let stand a ruling by the 2nd Circuit court in a case brought by a New York City principal who said she was transferred for complaining about the school system’s plan to improve the elementary school she ran.

A jury found that a district official had indeed improperly retaliated against Sheila Hurdle for exercising her free-speech rights. But it also determined that the district should not be held liable for monetary damages.

The three-judge appeals panel unanimously affirmed that decision in October. On March 21, the high court declined without comment to review Ms. Hurdle’s appeal in Hurdle v. New York City Board of Education (No. 04-941).

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