Discrimination case against Mattituck schools nears verdict

10/17/2012 8:00 AM |

A jury verdict could be handed down as early as today in former Mattituck-Cutchogue special education teacher Anthony Claudio’s age and gender discrimination case against his former employer.

Mr. Claudio, 50, who was one of four witnesses questioned on the trial’s fourth day Tuesday, will be back on the stand for continued cross examination by the school district’s attorney when the trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. He alleges in his complaint, which was filed in 2009, that he was terminated from a special education department where 28 of 30 employees were female and most were younger than 30. He’s seeking reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages.

The trial began Oct. 9 before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

Much of the testimony Tuesday centered around the events of the April 16, 2009 school board meeting in which the Board of Education, acting on the decision of district superintendent James McKenna to deny Mr. Claudio tenure, voted 4-3 to end the teacher’s probationary period and his employment with the district.

Former Mattituck-Cutchogue school board member Jeffrey Smith said he agreed with Mr. McKenna’s decision to not offer Mr. Claudio tenure after attending a Special Education Parent Teacher’s Association meeting where several parents expressed concern over the teacher’s interactions with their children.

“The way he spoke to those kids, I’m sorry, the man does not belong in a classroom,” he told the court.

Mr. Smith said board members were told by a school district attorney at an executive session before the April 2009 meeting that it did not have to host a public vote to end Mr. Claudio’s probationary period since state law grants superintendents sole authority to make tenure recommendations. Mr. Smith called the vote unnecessary and said it was held at the urging of board members who opposed Mr. McKenna’s decision to deny Mr. Claudio tenure.

Typically the board votes only on resolutions to grant tenure to teachers who receive the superintendent’s recommendation and no formal vote is held for those not granted tenure, Mr. Smith testified. Teachers who do not receive tenure after three years of probation are usually given a chance to resign before their employment is terminated, he said.

Board trustee Janique Nine, one of three members to oppose the resolution to end Mr. Claudio’s probationary period, was recalled by the plaintiff’s attorney Tuesday to testify that Mr. McKenna took a “straw poll” from board members during the executive session so he could gauge how they would vote during the public session.

Ms. Nine said the executive session got “heated” after she, board president Jerry Diffley and former vice president Deborah Cahill offered strong objections over the tenure denial.

“This was [Mr. McKenna’s] decision, we didn’t have any power there,” Ms. Nine said. “We weren’t going to get him to change his mind.”

Mr. Claudio’s wife Mary, a former substitute teacher and clerk in the district, testified Tuesday that Mr. McKenna told her Mr. Claudio wasn’t being offered tenure because you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

She cried when questioned about a performance review Mr. McKenna gave Mr. Claudio on November 10, 2005, two days after Ms. Claudio, who was diagnosed that year with ovarian cancer, had surgery.

Mr. Claudio alleges in his complaint that having the review done at that time was unfair since the superintendent knew about his wife’s surgery when he scheduled it.

When questioned Tuesday by Jeltje DeJong, the Smithtown-based attorney representing the Mattituck school district, Mr. Claudio testified that he did not request a date change for the performance appraisal and that he left the teacher comment section on his review blank.

Both Mr. Claudio and his wife said he signed an agreement in 2008 to not sue for tenure after his probationary period was initially extended one year. He said he signed it because he was told he would be fired if he did not and he’d then lose his health benefits. He said he was also assured by Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti that he would be granted tenure the following year.

Mr. Smith testified Tuesday that it was clear to him in 2008 that Mr. Claudio would not be granted tenure the following year.

“We were giving him a gift year so he could get a new job before he was denied tenure,” Mr. Smith told the jury.

For the second time during the trial, the jury was asked to leave the courtroom so Judge Bianco could reprimand Mr. Claudio’s attorney for inserting his own opinions into questioning. He was also told multiple times Tuesday to not ask questions regarding the legality of the April 2009 executive session, since Mr. Claudio’s complaint makes no reference to any violation of open meetings law.

“The jury will not be asked to make any determination on open meetings law,” Judge Bianco told attorney Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue. “Repeatedly bringing this matter up will only confuse them.”

Before jury deliberation, at least two more defense witnesses — Mr. McKenna and former school board trustee Lynne Krauza — are expected to be called Wednesday. Ms. DeJong said she might also call Mr. Petretti to testify, who like Mr. McKenna was called as a witness by Mr. Blangiardo last week.

Judge Bianco said if the jury does not deliberate today it will likely do so Thursday morning.

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