Malverne moves to end suit

Three staffers had sued for discrimination


Attorneys for the Malverne school district moved in U.S. District Court last week for a summary judgment that would end a racial discrimination lawsuit filed in December 2011 against Malverne High School and district administrators.

The suit targeted the high school’s principal, James Brown, Superintendent of Schools James Hunderfund and administrators Rose Linda Ricca and Vincent Romano. Brown has since retired, replaced by Romano, and Ricca is now deputy superintendent.

The plaintiffs, all African-Americans and former staffers in district schools, are Betsy Benedith, Sherwyn Besson and Kenneth Smith.

“There was a pervasive atmosphere is racial discrimination that extends through all levels of administration and teaching,” the suit claimed. “Three African-American teachers and administrators, the plaintiffs herein, have suffered from an administration that has limited their opportunities to advance, retaliated against their employment and even their children, and ultimately tried to remove them through termination, excess or transfer.”

Benedith, a former assistant principal at the high school whom the district let go in June 2011 despite student protests, accused Brown, who is also black, of treating white employees more favorably in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety that favoring blacks might create.

Besson, a former business teacher at the high school, claimed he was subjected to increasing discrimination, resulting in the loss of his position. He further alleged that his two children, who were students in the district, were subjected to retaliation for his complaints of discrimination.

Smith, who taught math at the high school for five years, claimed that the district discriminated against him in his course assignments, his access to professional development and classroom equipment, and his economic opportunities. The final act of discrimination, Smith said, was his transfer from the high school to the Howard T. Herber Middle School.

Steven Morelli, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said he thinks that a summary judgment against them is “unlikely,” though he understands that anything can happen when a judge plows through hundreds of pages of motions and exhibits.

The defendants “created a hostile work environment, subjected [the plaintiffs] to an atmosphere for adverse acts and treated them disparately because of their race and good-faith opposition to discriminatory practices,” the suit reads.

“After discovery ended in early August, the district moved for a summary judgment, and we responded,” Morelli said this week. “They also tried to sever the cases so that it becomes three separate cases instead of the one we filed, but I don’t see the judge allowing that. I don’t anticipate that we will hear anything back for a few months, because the judge has to look at all the papers for three plaintiffs. I’m glad that I don’t have to read all that paper.”

In recent papers filed with the court in opposition to both severing the case and the summary judgment, Morelli wrote, “While the claims amongst the plaintiffs do differ to some degree, they all prove the pattern and practice of discrimination instituted by the named defendants. For example, it is undisputed that defendant Hunderfund was directly responsible for plaintiff Smith’s transfer to the middle school, plaintiff Besson’s excess and plaintiff Benedith’s termination. All three allege that their transfer, termination and excess were based either on race, or in retaliation for protected speech.”

Morelli concluded, “When the time comes that we go to trial, I anticipate that we will be successful. We are patiently awaiting our day in court.”

School district officials declined to comment.

“We hope to send a message,” Morelli said. “We hope that the school district will take notice and do something about this.”

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