Art teacher loses in complaint about unsanitary classroom

Friday, June 10, 2011

A New York City art teacher has no free-speech rights with respect to complaints she made about what she contended were unsanitary conditions in her classroom. A federal district judge has ruled that the teacher’s complaint constituted unprotected job-duty speech within the meaning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006).

Yvonne Hanratty Massaro teaches art at Edward R. Murrow High School in New York City. In fall 2005, she shared an art-studio classroom with another teacher. Later that fall, Massaro informed school officials that she had contracted scabies — a contagious skin disease caused by exposure to mites.

Massaro took sick leave, and upon her return in January 2006 reminded the school principal and assistant principal of her scabies infection. The principal ordered the art room repainted and disinfected with bug spray. In February 2006, a medical exam found Massaro fit to return to duty.

Next Massaro filed an accident report with the city’s department of education, detailing what she termed the “unclean working environment” in her classroom, the school administration’s lack of response, in her view, and its failure to reprimand the other teacher with whom Massaro shared the room with and who Massaro said caused the unsanitary conditions.

Massaro later sued, contending that in for her complaints she was subjected to a series of retaliatory actions by the city department of education and school officials, including cancellation of her TV-production class, placement of more special-education students in her classes, more frequent assignment of room-monitoring duties and delay of adequate supplies for her classroom.

The defendants responded that none of the actions taken against Massaro were done in retaliation for her complaints. They also argued that her complaints did not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain agreed with the defendants June 3 in Massaro v. Department of Education of the City of New York, finding that Massaro’s speech was made in connection with her official job duties as a teacher.

In Garcetti, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”

Applying Garcetti, Swain determined that complaints about classroom conditions are “part and parcel of a teacher’s duties as a public employee and do not enjoy First Amendment protection.”

Swain also determined that even if Massaro’s speech had survived Garcetti, her complaints were a matter of private concern rather than public concern. Under other rulings, public employees alleging First Amendment violations also must show that their speech touches on matters of public importance.

“Plaintiff has failed to proffer any facts sufficient to raise a genuine issue as to whether her complaints related to a matter of public concern rather than personal interest,” Swain wrote, adding that Massaro’s complaints never addressed the health of her students.

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