ALBANY – A teacher may proceed with his claim that state education staffers sabotaged his efforts to find a new job by alerting prospective employers that he had sexual relations with two former students more than 20 years ago, a federal judge has ruled.
Randy Mudge’s teaching license was suspended for a year and resigned as a physical education teacher and coach in the Hunter-Tannersville Central School District in Greene County as the result of an investigation by the Education Department during the 2008-09 school year.
Mudge, who coached the girls’ soccer team, acknowledged having sex with two former players after taking them to New York Mets games in 1989 and 1993. Both were 18 at the time and had graduated. Mudge was 28 and 31.
He maintained in Mudge v. Zugalla, 1:13-cv-891, that state interference has not only cost him consideration by other districts for full-time teaching jobs, but also resulted in the abrupt removal of his name from lists of eligible substitute teachers in the Coxsackie-Athens and Middleburgh districts.
Northern District Judge David Hurd (See Profile) ruled that Mudge had made plausible claims of procedural due process and stigma-plus violations by the state. He found that Mudge had properly clarified his contentions since initially filing suit in July 2013 to plead the procedural due process claim. A substitute teaching position is not a property interest entitled to due process protections, but a teaching license does merit such protection, the judge noted.
“While the state defendants have not actually revoked or suspended his teaching license, their actions have resulted in the functional equivalent of a revocation,” Hurd wrote from Utica. “Indeed, the [Department of Education] has virtual monopoly on state-issued teaching licenses, and actions by its employees to prevent an individual from working in its schools are tantamount to denying him the benefit of that license without any procedural due process.”
If the defendants are, in essence, depriving Mudge of the benefit of his teaching license, he should be afforded an administrative hearing, the judge concluded.
Mudge maintains that he was removed from the substitute teacher list in the Coxsackie-Athens district on Feb. 1, 2012, after working for nearly a year without any complaints about his conduct or job performance. Mudge said he was told by the Coxsackie-Athens superintendent that he was removed as a substitute based on information provided about him by Department of Education employees, particularly senior professional conduct investigator Anne Zugalla.
Similarly, Mudge contends he was removed as a substitute in nearby Middleburgh without explanation and told later that the Middleburgh superintendent received a letter from Zugalla falsely indicating that he was the subject of an ongoing state investigation.
Although later reinstated as a substitute by the Middleburgh board in August 2012 for the next school year, Mudge was fired about two weeks later. The superintendent said she spoke with Zugalla, who complained about Middleburgh’s decision to employ Mudge.
His suit claims that at least two other state Education Department employees working with Zugalla contacted potential employers in efforts to dissuade them from hiring him as a teacher.
Hurd ruled that Mudge could make out a stigma-plus claim at this stage of litigation based on his allegation that he has been deprived of his good reputation while unconstitutionally hindered in his job search. The judge said it was premature to conclude that state employees did not convey false information about Mudge to school districts.
The state argued unsuccessfully its employees were shielded by qualified immunity for actions taken in their official capacities. However, the judge found that only the Department of Education is protected against suit by the Eleventh Amendment immunity.
Phillip Steck, a Democratic state assemblyman from Albany, is representing Mudge for Cooper Erving & Savage of Albany along with litgation associate Carlo Alexandre C. De Oliveira.
Assistant Attorney General Bruce Boivin argued for Zugalla and the Education Department.
James Gregory, a partner at Hogan, Sarzynski, Lynch, Dewind & Gregory of Johnson City, represented the Coxsackie-Athens Central School District.
Patrick Fitzgerald III, a shareholder at Girvin & Ferlazzo in Albany, argued for the Middleburgh Central School District.
An Appellate Division, Third Department panel upheld the suspension of Mudge’s license in Matter of Mudge v. Huxley, 79 AD3d 1395 (2010). Mudge maintains that he has disclosed the sanction to all prospective employers.