Skip to main content
Press Release

NYC Department Of Education To Pay Over $1.1 Million To Four Victims Of Race Discrimination And Retaliation In Connection With Suit Brought By U.S. Attorney

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York
Settlements Resolve Allegations That the NYC Department of Education Discriminated Against African American Teachers Who Worked at Pan American International High School and Retaliated Against an Assistant Principal Who Spoke Out Against the Discriminatio

Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that the United States has settled a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that the NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION (the “DOE”) engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.  Specifically, as alleged in the Government’s complaint, the DOE and Superintendent Juan Mendez permitted Principal Minerva Zanca to discriminate against all three African American teachers who worked at Pan American International High School (“Pan American”) and retaliate against an assistant principal who spoke out against the discrimination.  In connection with the settlement agreements, which were approved by U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, the DOE agreed to pay a total of $1,187,500 to the four victims of DOE’s discrimination and retaliation, and provide training to all DOE superintendents regarding DOE’s anti-discrimination policies and procedures.  

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said:  “Title VII expressly prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their race or retaliating against individuals who protest such discrimination.  The discrimination in this case was invidious, unlawful, and counter to our core values.  This Office will remain vigilant in ensuring that employers who do not comply with Title VII are held to account.” 

According to the Complaint, in August 2012, Superintendent Mendez selected Minerva Zanca as Pan American’s new principal.  During the 2012-2013 school year, Pan American employed 27 teachers, three of whom were African American.  Throughout that school year, Principal Zanca purposely targeted John Flanagan and Heather Hightower, Pan American’s two untenured African American teachers, for unsatisfactory lesson ratings.  Principal Zanca also made derogatory racial comments about Mr. Flanagan and Ms. Hightower to Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo.  Specifically, Principal Zanca asked whether Assistant Principal Riccardo had seen Mr. Flanagan’s “big lips quivering” during a meeting, that Ms. Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater,” and that she could “never” have “fucking nappy hair” like Ms. Hightower.  Principal Zanca also discriminated against Lisa-Erika James, a tenured African American teacher, by cutting the highly successful theater program Ms. James oversaw.

During the spring of 2013, when Assistant Principal Riccardo refused to give an unsatisfactory rating to a lesson taught by Ms. Hightower, Principal Zanca accused him of “sabotaging her plan,” and called school security to have him removed from the building. Subsequently, Principal Zanca initiated two complaints against Assistant Principal Riccardo with the DOE’s internal investigatory offices.  Those offices determined that Principal Zanca’s allegations did not warrant any charges against Assistant Principal Riccardo.  In June of 2013, Principal Zanca gave Assistant Principal Riccardo, Mr. Flanagan, and Ms. Hightower annual performance ratings of “unsatisfactory.”  Principal Zanca’s misconduct was brought to the attention of Superintendent Mendez, but the DOE did not take any disciplinary action against Principal Zanca.  Even after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) found reasonable cause to believe that the DOE had discriminated and retaliated against Ms. James, Mr. Riccardo, and Ms. Hightower, Principal Zanca was allowed to remain in charge of Pan American.  Neither Ms. Hightower, Mr. Flanagan, Ms. James, nor Mr. Riccardo worked at Pan American after the 2012-2013 school year.

Title VII authorizes the Department of Justice to commence an action in the United States District Court against the DOE to remedy discrimination and retaliation for opposing discrimination.  The Government’s lawsuit sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages on behalf of Mr. Flanagan, Ms. James, Ms. Hightower, and Assistant Principal Riccardo, all of whom also filed their own lawsuits regarding the discrimination and retaliation they suffered at the hands of DOE.  Attorneys for the complainants, Erica L. Shnayder, Arcé Law Group, PC, and Noah A. Kinigstein, Law Office of Noah A. Kinigstein, assisted in the litigation and resolution of this matter.

The settlements, which resolve both the United States’ suit and the private lawsuits, require the DOE to pay the four victims a combined total of $1,187,500, and provide additional training for DOE superintendents to ensure that employment decisions are properly handled and that this type of discrimination and retaliation in New York City schools will not go unchecked.

More information on the obligations of employers with respect to discrimination and retaliation is available at

Mr. Berman thanked the EEOC for its initial investigation of the Complaint.

The case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit.  Assistant United States Attorneys Christine S. Poscablo and Natasha Waglow Teleanu are in charge of the case.


Jim Margolin, Nicholas Biase
(212) 637-2600

Updated May 18, 2020

Civil Rights
Press Release Number: 20-110