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Media Alerts - Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist. - Second Circuit
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December 4, 2012
  Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist. - Second Circuit
Headline: Second Circuit Upholds One Million Dollar Verdict Against Pine Plains Central New York School District for Title VI Discrimination Finding District was "Deliberately Indifferent" to Harassment Suffered by Former High School Student from his Fellow Students

Area of Law: Civil Rights; Constitutional

Issue(s) Presented: Whether the Pines Plain Central School District was deliberately indifferent to harassment suffered by a former student thereby constituting discrimination under Title VI and whether the $1 million damages awarded to the former student was excessive.

Brief Summary: Plaintiff-appellee Anthony Zeno transferred to Stissing Mountain High School in the Pine Plains Central School District during his freshman year in high school. For his next three-and-a-half years in high school, Zeno was repeatedly harassed by some of his fellow classmates. He subsequently brought this discrimination suit under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VI") against the School District in the United States District Court for the Southern District contending that the School District had been deliberately indifferent to his harassment. A jury found the School District had discriminated against Zeno under Title VI and awarded Zeno $1.25 million in damages. The district court reduced the jury award to $1 million, but upheld the verdict. On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed, agreeing that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to have concluded that the School District was deliberately indifferent to Zeno's harassment under Title VI, and found the $1 million jury verdict was reasonable.

To read the full opinion, visit: ttp://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f8891585-9c10-4c71-922c-b08d2decf3e4/1/doc/10-3604_opn.pdf#xml=http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f8891585-9c10-4c71-922c-b08d2decf3e4/1/hilite/

Significance (if any): a former high school student

Extended Summary (if applicable):

In January 2005, plaintiff-appellee Anthony Zeno moved from Long Island, New York to Dutchess County New York. Zeno, who is dark-skinned and biracial - half Caucasin, half Latino - enrolled as a freshman student in the Pine Plains Central School District's Stissing Mountain High School, a school where minority students represent less than five percent of the student body. Almost immediately, and continuously over the next three-and-a-half years, Zeno was subjected to repeated and escalating racial comments and other harassment, including violent physical assaults, from various classmates. Specifically, evidence was presented that Zeno was subjected numerous prejudicial comments during school and on school property including, in his freshman year, reports from Zeno's art teacher that classmates repeatedly called Zeno "'homey' and 'gangster,' referred to 'the hood,' and made stereotypical remarks such as 'what's up my nigger' and 'you're so ghetto.'" Incidents during his sophomore year included a football teammate punching Zeno and stating "he was going to kick [Zeno's] black ass" and another yelling "[y]ou fucking nigger. Go back to where you came from," in the cafeteria.

Beginning shortly after Zeno's arrival at the school, and throughout his time at the high school, Zeno and his mother repeatedly reported the incidents of harassment and racism to various school and School District officials. The School District typically responded by suspending students involved in incidents against Zeno and, in two cases, Zeno obtained Orders of Protection, but the harassment continued. School District officials were also contacted that year by the Dutchess County Human Rights Commission ("HRS") and the County N.A.A.C.P, about reports of bias and racism against Zeno, and by a lawyer retained by Zeno, requesting that the School District provide Zeno with a shadow to accompany him at school and that the School District implement HRS racial sensitivity programs. The School District did not assign a shadow or implement the programs, nor did their assigned Title IX officer ever institute a formal investigation of the harassment. An Individualized Education Program ("IEP") prepared by the school at the end Zeno's sophomore year noted that he had "been struggling with acceptance in the school environment. There have been numerous incidents between Anthony and others with prejudicial or racial overtones."

The harassment and racial comments continued during Zeno's third and fourth years, although Zeno apparently reported only the more severe incidents, because "[n]othing was being done." Remedial action ultimately taken by the School District by Zeno's fourth year included having outside consultant hold an optional student "sensitivity training" session, having daily messages read over the school's public address system relating to "civic and personal values," and holding two student assemblies that included some discussion of racism and racial harassment. Zeno did not have sufficient credits to graduate by his fourth year and, "rather than endure further harassment and try to graduate with a Regents diploma," Zeno accepted a more limited IEP diploma, that is accepted by some community colleges, but not by many employers, the military, four-year colleges, trade schools and other programs.

In July 2007, Zeno brought action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against the School District alleging discrimination in violation of Title VI. The jury returned a verdict for Zeno, finding that the School District had violated his civil rights under Title VI, and awarded Zeno $1.25 million in damages. The district court granted the School District's post-trial motion for a new trial, subject to Zeno accepting a reduced award of $1 million. Zeno agreed to accept the reduced award, judgment was entered, and the School District appealed.

Pursuant to Title VI, recipients of federal funds, including public education institutions, are prohibited from intentionally discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. A school district can be liable for conduct by a third part only if a plaintiff demonstrates that the district "exercise[d] substantial control over both the harasser and the context in which the known harassment occurs," that plaintiff suffered "severe and discriminatory harassment," that the district had actual knowledge of the harassment, and that the district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.

The Second Circuit affirmed the verdict, finding a reasonable jury could have determined that Zeno suffered "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" harassment that discriminatorily deprived him of a "supportive, scholastic environment free of racism harassment," and which lead him to withdraw from the School District and earn only an IEP diploma. The court found adequate evidence to support the jury's findings that the School District had both knowledge of and "substantial control" over the harassment Zeno endured and the student harassers, highlighting that much of the harassment described occurred on school grounds and property - "including, for example, shouts of 'nigger' in the hallways, death threats in the classroom or bathroom, and an attempted assault with a chair in the cafeteria." The court further found sufficient evidence that the School District's responses to the harassment - including delaying over a year before implementing any remedial action beyond disciplining specific offenders, failing to adequately investigate the harassment, instituting "half-hearted" alternative remedial measures, and ignoring signs that more direct action was needed - "amount[ed] to deliberate indifference to discrimination." Finally, the court upheld the $1 million compensatory damages award to Zeno, concluding there was sufficient evidence that the "harassment would have a profound and long-term impact on Anthony's life and his ability to earn a living."

To read the full opinion, visit: ttp://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f8891585-9c10-4c71-922c-b08d2decf3e4/1/doc/10-3604_opn.pdf#xml=http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f8891585-9c10-4c71-922c-b08d2decf3e4/1/hilite/


Panel (if known): Judges Cabranes, Livingston, and Chin

Argument (if known): 10/21/2011

Date of Issued Opinion: 12/3/2012

Docket Number: 10-3604-cv

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Elyse Diamond Moskowitz

Counsel (if known): STEPHEN BERGSTEIN, Bergstein & Ullrich, LLP, Chester, New York, for Plaintiff- Appellee. JOHN FRANCES MOORE, Towne, Ryan & Partners, P.C., Albany, New York, for Defendant-Appellant. Jay Worona, Pilar Sokol, Latham, New York, for Amicus Curiae New York State School Boards Association, Inc.

Edited: 12/12/2012 at 10:16 AM by Media Alerts Moderator

    Posted By: Elyse Moskowitz @ 12/04/2012 10:16 AM     2nd Circuit  

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