Tolbert v. Queens College, Docket No. 00-7143

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtKEARSE
Citation242 F.3d 58
Parties(2nd Cir. 2001) DEREK I. TOLBERT, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. QUEENS COLLEGE, THE CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, STUART LIEBMAN, Professor, and HELEN SMITH CAIRNS, Professor, Defendants-Appellees, ERIC GANDER, Professor, Defendant
Decision Date01 August 2000
Docket NumberDocket No. 00-7143

Page 58

242 F.3d 58 (2nd Cir. 2001)
DEREK I. TOLBERT, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
QUEENS COLLEGE, THE CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, STUART LIEBMAN, Professor, and HELEN SMITH CAIRNS, Professor, Defendants-Appellees,
ERIC GANDER, Professor, Defendant.
Docket No. 00-7143
August Term, 2000
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT
Argued: October 4, 2000
Decided: February 22, 2001

Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Bernard A. Friedman, Judge, setting aside jury verdict that awarded plaintiff $50,000 in punitive damages on claims of race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 2000d et seq., and granting appellees judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b).

Reversed and remanded.

Page 59

Copyrighted Material Omitted

Page 60

Copyrighted Material Omitted

Page 61

SCOTT A. KORENBAUM, Hempstead, New York (Frederick K. Brewington, Hempstead, New York, on the brief), for Plaintiff-Appellant.

CLEMENT J. COLUCCI, Assistant Attorney General, New York, New York (Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General of the State of New York, Robert A. Forte, Deputy Solicitor General, Michael S. Belohlavek, Assistant Solicitor General, New York, New York, on the brief), for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: KEARSE, CALABRESI, and SOTOMAYOR, Circuit Judges.

KEARSE, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff Derek I. Tolbert appeals from a final judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Bernard A. Friedman, Judge*, dismissing as a matter of law his claim that defendants Queens College of the City University of New York ("Queens College" or the "College"), Stuart Liebman, and Helen Smith Cairns (collectively "defendants") discriminated against him on the basis of race. Following a jury verdict finding that Tolbert was the victim of racial discrimination by the College in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §2000d et seq. (1994) ("Title VI"), and by Liebman and Cairns in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1981 (1994), and awarding Tolbert $50,000 in punitive damages, the district court entered judgment in favor of defendants pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b) on the ground that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to permit a rational juror to find that any of the defendants discriminated against Tolbert on the basis of race. On appeal, Tolbert contends that the district court erred by failing to view the evidence in the light most favorable to him. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand for entry of an amended judgment reinstating the jury's award of punitive damages and awarding Tolbert nominal damages.

I. BACKGROUND

Tolbert is an African-American who was an English teacher in the New York City school system. In 1989, in order to maintain his teaching eligibility and to qualify

Page 62

for a higher-salaried position, Tolbert enrolled in the Media Studies program offered by the Queens College Department of Communication Arts and Sciences (the "Department"), seeking a Master's degree in communications. Liebman and Cairns were professors in the Department; Cairns was its chair. The evidence at trial, taken in the light most favorable to Tolbert as the party against whom judgment was entered as a matter of law, is summarized as follows.

A. Tolbert's Experience Prior to the Comprehensive Examination

In or about 1990, Tolbert temporarily withdrew from the Media Studies program for personal reasons; the hiatus lasted approximately two years, and he received grades of "Incomplete" in three courses. On his return to the program in 1992, he sought to complete the requirements for his degree. In that endeavor, he worked with Professor Jonathan Buchsbaum, coordinator of the Media Studies program, whom Tolbert had not previously met.

Tolbert testified that his efforts to obtain his Master's degree were frustrated because "[t]hey just kept changing standards or kept changing what was asked of me." (Trial Transcript ("Tr.") 20.) As an example, he testified that he had completed an internship and believed his obligations with respect to that requirement had been fulfilled. But after the internship's completion, he was informed for the first time by Buchsbaum that he must also write a paper. (Tr. 19-20.) Tolbert inquired as to the nature of the paper that was required; Buchsbaum told him to write about what he had done in the internship, his daily activity, what he had learned, what his duties had been. But when Tolbert wrote such a paper, Buchsbaum said that that was not what he wanted. Tolbert complained about these "flip-flops" (Tr. 19) to Queens College Dean Mary Jane Wochinger.

Tolbert also testified that his understanding had been that in two of the courses in which he received grades of Incomplete--those taught by Professors Ibok and Mohammadi, who had since left Queens College--his papers would be sent to the departed professors for grading. He submitted two papers and was subsequently informed that Ibok had given the paper for her course a B. However, when he thereafter inquired of the College registrar, he was informed that his grade had not been changed to B but remained an Incomplete. When he inquired of Buchsbaum, Tolbert was informed that the grade "was not to [Buchsbaum's] liking" and that Buchsbaum said "he had taken over the matter" (Tr.19); "that Professor Ibok had graded the paper[ and] sent in the grade, [but that Buchsbaum] was going to change it" (id.); and that Buchsbaum told him "you are going to have an F" (Tr. 26). Buchsbaum charged that the papers Tolbert submitted for the Ibok and Mohammadi courses were unacceptable because they were papers that Tolbert had submitted in other courses (the "allegedly recycled papers"). Tolbert denied the accusation but submitted new papers.

Tolbert testified that Buchsbaum, in discussing his rejection of one of the allegedly recycled papers, "was gleeful in what he was saying." (Tr. 26.) Tolbert did not react well to Buchsbaum's attitude; their conversation became strident, and Tolbert stormed out of the office. Tolbert indicated that he again complained to Dean Wochinger about Buchsbaum. At some point, he received a short letter from Buchsbaum stating that Buchsbaum would have Tolbert's grade in the Ibok course changed from Incomplete to B. Tolbert also received a lengthier letter upbraiding him for profane, rude, and threatening behavior at his prior meeting with Buchsbaum and stating that repetition of such behavior would not be tolerated. Tolbert conceded that in that conversation he had used profanity by stating that he was getting the "hell" out of there; but he denied that he had become rude or threatening to

Page 63

Buchsbaum, because he was trying to get his degree. (Tr. 26-29.)

After successfully resubmitting papers for the Ibok and Mohammadi courses, Tolbert researched and prepared what was to be his final paper, to be graded by Buchsbaum. Tolbert testified that he commented, in discussing his topic with Buchsbaum, that in the 1930s or 1940s black persons did not own radio stations but rented air time, and those who entered the station were required to use the back stairs. According to Tolbert, Buchsbaum responded in essence that "[i]t always seems the blacks have to go up the back stairs or are second rate" (Tr. 33); and Buchsbaum's manner and demeanor suggested to Tolbert that he agreed that blacks were second-rate.

When Tolbert eventually submitted his paper, Buchsbaum accused him of plagiarizing most of it. Though Tolbert denied the accusation, contending that he had made adequate attribution of the contents to their source, Buchsbaum found the plagiarism "astonish[ing]" (Tr. 367), and gave the paper to Liebman. Liebman reviewed it and testified at trial that the paper was "plagiarized in the most obvious amazing astounding way [he] had ever seen in all [his 20-odd] years as an instructor" (Tr. 297). Buchsbaum had previously brought Tolbert's allegedly recycled papers to the attention of other members of the Department at meetings attended by Liebman and Cairns. A third meeting was held to discuss the accusation of plagiarism. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the charge, which Liebman termed "cheating" (Tr. 298), the Department decided simply to fail Tolbert on that paper, allow him to submit another, and give him a C in the course.

B. The Comprehensive Examination

In order to receive a Master's degree from the Department at the time of these incidents, candidates were required, in addition to their course work, to pass a comprehensive examination. The examination consisted of a number of pass/fail essay questions from which the candidate was to select four to answer; passing grades were needed on all four. Each essay was graded initially by two professors; if the grades from those two professors differed, the essay was graded by a third professor to break the deadlock.

Tolbert sat for his comprehensive exam in June 1993; on all four of the essays he wrote, he ultimately received failing grades. On three of those essays, one of the initial graders was Professor Eric Gander. Gander, who had never had any contact with Tolbert nor even heard his name, gave each essay a passing grade. On two of those three essays, Liebman was the other initial grader; Liebman gave Tolbert a failing grade on each; Buchsbaum was the tie-breaker, also giving Tolbert a failing grade. On the third essay that was awarded a passing grade by Gander, the other initial grader was Buchsbaum; Buchsbaum gave Tolbert a failing grade, and Liebman was the tie-breaker who gave Tolbert a failing grade. The fourth essay was graded by Buchsbaum and Professor Colleen Roach, each of whom gave Tolbert a failing grade.

Five other students--some of them Chinese, none of them African-American--took the examination at the same time as Tolbert, with varying degrees of success. None of the others received failing grades on more than one essay.

...

To continue reading

Request your trial
450 practice notes
  • Ates v. United States, 20-CV-4334(JS)(AYS)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • October 22, 2020
    ...5821378, *22 (D. Vt. Sept. 30, 2020) (citing Alexander v.Page 17 Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 293 (2001) and quoting Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir. 2001)). Plaintiff complains that Touro denied his admission notwithstanding that Touro offers "guaranteed admission" to applicant......
  • Walker v. Schult, 9:11-CV-287 (DJS)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of New York
    • May 29, 2020
    ...party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that the jury might have drawn in his favor from the evidence." Tolbert v. Queens Coll. , 242 F.3d 58, 70 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Smith v. Lightning Bolt Prods., Inc. , 861 F.2d 363, 367 (2d Cir. 1988) ). "The court cannot assess the weight of ......
  • Biswas v. City of N.Y., No. 12 Civ. 3607(JGK).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • September 30, 2013
    ...11 Civ. 5881, 2012 WL 4477552, at *14 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 2012) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted; Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir.2001)). “Discrimination under Title VI is not limited to being excluded from, or denied the benefits of, a particular school prog......
  • A.M. ex rel. J.M. v. NYC Dep't of Educ., No. 08 CV 1962 (RJD)(LB).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • January 17, 2012
    ...was intentional, and that the discrimination was a substantial or motivating factor for the defendant.” Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir.2001) (internal quotations and citations omitted). 30.See supra note 15. 31.See Cave, 514 F.3d at 249 (“Absent any evidence casting doubt ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
443 cases
  • Ates v. United States, 20-CV-4334(JS)(AYS)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • October 22, 2020
    ...5821378, *22 (D. Vt. Sept. 30, 2020) (citing Alexander v.Page 17 Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 293 (2001) and quoting Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir. 2001)). Plaintiff complains that Touro denied his admission notwithstanding that Touro offers "guaranteed admission" to applicant......
  • Walker v. Schult, 9:11-CV-287 (DJS)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of New York
    • May 29, 2020
    ...party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that the jury might have drawn in his favor from the evidence." Tolbert v. Queens Coll. , 242 F.3d 58, 70 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Smith v. Lightning Bolt Prods., Inc. , 861 F.2d 363, 367 (2d Cir. 1988) ). "The court cannot assess the weight of ......
  • Biswas v. City of N.Y., No. 12 Civ. 3607(JGK).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • September 30, 2013
    ...11 Civ. 5881, 2012 WL 4477552, at *14 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 2012) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted; Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir.2001)). “Discrimination under Title VI is not limited to being excluded from, or denied the benefits of, a particular school prog......
  • A.M. ex rel. J.M. v. NYC Dep't of Educ., No. 08 CV 1962 (RJD)(LB).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • January 17, 2012
    ...was intentional, and that the discrimination was a substantial or motivating factor for the defendant.” Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir.2001) (internal quotations and citations omitted). 30.See supra note 15. 31.See Cave, 514 F.3d at 249 (“Absent any evidence casting doubt ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
4 books & journal articles
  • Addressing the Problem: The Judicial Branches
    • United States
    • Environmental justice: legal theory and practice. 3rd Edition
    • November 20, 2014
    ...was intentional, and the discrimination was a substantial or motivating factor for the City’s actions. Tolbert v. Queens Coll. , 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir. 2001). Section 5309 prohibits racial discrimination under any program or activity funded in whole or in part with funds made available un......
  • Addressing the Problem: The Judicial Branches
    • United States
    • Environmental justice: legal theory and practice. 4th edition
    • February 20, 2018
    ...was intentional, and the discrimination was a substantial or motivating factor for the City’s actions. Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir. 2001). Section 5309 prohibits racial discrimination under any program or activity funded in whole or in part with funds made available und......
  • Addressing The Problem: The Judicial Branches
    • United States
    • Environmental justice: legal theory and practice
    • February 17, 2009
    ...was intentional, and the discrimination was a substantial or motivating factor for the City’s actions. Tolbert v. Queens Coll. , 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir. 2001). Section 5309 prohibits racial discrimination under any program or activity funded in whole or in part with funds made available un......
  • Addressing the problem: the judicial branches
    • United States
    • Environmental justice: legal theory and practice - second edition
    • May 23, 2012
    ...was intentional, and the discrimination was a substantial or motivating factor for the City’s actions. Tolbert v. Queens Coll. , 242 F.3d 58, 69 (2d Cir. 2001). Section 5309 prohibits racial discrimination under any program or activity funded in whole or in part with funds made available un......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT