Judge allows suit by Charter School aide over firing

Judge allows suit by Charter School aide over firing

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The Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School is the target of a lawsuit by a former teacher's assistant.

The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School is defendant in a lawsuit in which a teaching assistant charges wrongful termination and violation of her privacy. A federal judge in the U.S. District Court in Boston denied the school’s request to dismiss the lawsuit on January 8, allowing the court action to proceed.

Emily Billing, 31, of Vineyard Haven sued the Charter School, director Robert Moore, and the school’s trustees on February 15, 2013, alleging she was fired from her job, despite a signed contract under which she was to serve as a math and science teaching assistant for the 2011-2012 school year. Mr. Moore fired Ms. Billing after anonymous phone calls to school officials described past drug charges against her. Ms. Billing served as an on-call substitute teacher at the Oak Bluffs School during the two previous school years, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the Charter School asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Denying the request for dismissal of most of the allegations in the suit, Judge Denise J. Casper wrote that, “the factual allegations are sufficient to support the reasonable inference that the defendant [the Charter School] is liable for the misconduct alleged.”

In court documents, attorney Tom Donahue of the Boston law firm Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, asserted that Mr. Moore had an absolute right to dismiss Ms. Billing, based solely on his judgment. Mr. Donahue cited contract language, as follows, “The Director may terminate this contract at any time during the contract period if he determines, in his judgment, the program is not working to meet the needs of the students.”

The case is in its early stages, and the process of gathering evidence and deposing witnesses has yet to begin.

“The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School stands behind its decision not to employ Ms. Billing, because of her criminal issues in Colorado,” attorney Donahue told The Times. “The decision was based on the best interests of the children and of the school.”

Ms. Billing’s attorneys said the school’s hiring and firing practices deserve close attention.

“We don’t think the termination was appropriate in this case,” attorney Ilyas Rona said. Mr. Rona and attorney John Bita 3rd, of the Boston law firm Milligan Coughlin, represent Ms. Billing. “We think that Emily will be entitled to right the wrong. She was wrongfully terminated. She is entitled to get some personal justice.”

Charges and dismissals

Ms. Billing has a record of arrests for drug and alcohol crimes, but the only legal matter raised in her complaint against the Charter School, and the one that served as the basis for her dismissal, took place in 2008, when she pleaded guilty to possession of more than one gram of cocaine, after her arrest in Colorado, according to court records from Pitkin County Court in Colorado. She was given a three-year deferred sentence, with the understanding that if she completed her probation, the charge could be dismissed. On August 17, 2011, the court certified that Ms. Billing had successfully completed her probation, which included random drug screens and 40 hours of community service. The court allowed her to withdraw her guilty plea, and the drug charge was dismissed.

On January 27, 2012, approximately four months after her termination and shortly before she filed the lawsuit, Ms. Billing was arraigned in Edgartown District Court on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, leaving the scene of property damage, and driving on the wrong way on a state highway, according to court records. In that case, she admitted the prosecutor had sufficient facts to convict her, and the case was continued without a finding. Her license was suspended for 45 days, she completed an alcohol education course, and the charge was later dismissed.

On January 2, 2013, she was arraigned on a trespassing charge. That charge was dismissed by the court on January 16, 2013.

On December 19, 2013, Ms. Billing again appeared in Edgartown District Court, for arraignment on a second offense of driving under the influence of alcohol, driving under the influence of drugs, and possession of the prescription amphetamine Adderall, according to court records. Those charges are pending.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Ms. Billing said her termination sent her into a downward spiral. “I actually had a teaching position, and it was ripped away from me due to an anonymous phone call,” Ms. Billing said. “I was devastated. It was my first real, actual job with insurance and everything. It has been so unfair. I messed up a little bit, once. I don’t do drugs. I didn’t do anything wrong until after this happened.”

Since her termination, she has not applied for any other teaching jobs. She has worked as an electrician but is currently unemployed.

Court action

Ms. Billing filed the lawsuit in Dukes County Superior Court on February 15, 2013. At the request of Mr. Donahue, the school’s attorney, the case was moved to federal court in October of last year. The lawsuit does not attach a specific amount of money to the claim for damages. Ms. Billing asked the court to grant damages “in the amount she would have made under the Employment Agreement, along with health and dental insurance covered under the Employment Agreement, lost opportunity damages, and emotional damages, all in an amount to be proven at trial.”

She also alleges that after signing a contract to be a teacher’s assistant at a salary of $20,790 on July 25, 2011, she was fired without notice, and without a hearing. On September 2 of that year, just before school started, Ms. Billing was called to a private meeting with Mr. Moore, and vice director Susan DiRubio, who told her they were looking into her criminal history, according to the lawsuit. On September 6, she met again with Mr. Moore, who was accompanied by a Charter School teacher with no personnel management or oversight responsibility for Ms. Billing. Mr. Moore gave Ms. Billing a termination letter.

“In addition to plaintiff and defendant Moore, the meeting on the 6th was also attended by yet another MVPCS employee, Marie Larsen,” according to the allegations in the lawsuit. “Defendant Moore permitted Ms. Larsen to be present and discuss plaintiff’s employment, despite plaintiff’s protests that Ms. Larsen should not be present at this meeting.

“Defendant Moore disclosed plaintiff’s confidential and personal information to a MVPCS employee, without a legitimate countervailing interest to make such disclosure.”

In the lawsuit, Ms. Billing charged that by disclosing information to Ms. DiRubio and Ms. Larsen, Mr. Moore violated her right to privacy. She also alleges that the school breached its contract with her. She claims the school violated the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act by firing her without notice and without a hearing. She also claimed in the lawsuit she “suffered severe emotional distress, damage to her reputation and to her professional career, suffered mental pain and anguish and humiliation,” because the school disclosed material of a highly personal nature, in violation of law.

In the school’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, Mr. Donahue argued the drug charges in Colorado are public records of the court, and Mr. Moore did not disclose any information that was not already a matter of public record.

In considering the school’s request to dismiss those allegations, the judge explained, the court must decide if there is a reasonable inference that the school failed to act according to law, assuming Ms. Billing’s accusations are true.

Using that standard, Judge Casper denied the request to dismiss an allegation that the school breached a contract and denied the request to dismiss an allegation that the school denied her due process in firing her. The court did dismiss the third allegation, that the school violated her civil rights under Massachusetts law, but the judge said she would allow Ms. Billing to amend the charge and refile with the court. On the fourth allegation, Judge Casper dismissed a charge that the school invaded her privacy filed against the school and the board of trustees, but denied the request to dismiss the same allegation against Mr. Moore. She ordered all the parties back to court for a hearing on February 3.

Comments

  1. seems to me if they dismissed every teacher who has done drugs they wouldn’t have enough teachers to staff the schools.

    1. So what are implying Sudarsky? Should we allow teachers with criminal drug and alcohol records to continue to teach especially if they don’t divulge that history upon application? Someone charged with trespassing recently is ok also?

      1. What I are implying?I am not IMPLYIng anything.I am saying it right out front.

      2. We live in an inverted world. The left successfully infiltrated our schools two generations ago. One of the tenets taught from kindergarten is that we must not discriminate. Everything must be judged, or non-judged, as equal. Nothing is better than the next thing. Of course, this folly is counter to everything we know about nature. The ability to correctly discriminate is the key to survival.

        1. Jonathan.. Jonathan..
          Your liberal bashing is getting to be a bit boring you know. Every issue, every time, it’s the fault of the liberals..
          Being a liberal, I won’t judge you for your opinions about discrimination. You can discriminate all you want, and I won’t call you names.
          I taught my daughter not to judge people by the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation..
          I taught her that we live in a society that declares in writing “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”
          I truly get a bit tired of the conservatives wrapping themselves in the flag, declaring the liberals constitution haters, and then saying something like “The ability to correctly discriminate is the key to survival.”
          I hope you enjoy your holiday weekend and reflect upon why this country declared a national holiday for a man that suffered so much discrimination.

          1. It is the fault of liberals. There are two types. The good-hearted ones who actually are nice people but who are misguided by the cynical ones who simply want to be in charge. And, the word “discriminate” has been hijacked by the left only to mean unfair treatment of their selected groups. The word has far more applications than that. That you assign that interpretation to my use of the word makes my point.

          2. dondondon12 she is an addict. Her behavior as outlined above indicates it is a risk having her as a teacher. Larche is correct on the use of the word ”discriminate”. We should discriminate. A 21 year old with a tattoo on his neck and multiple earrings is not a serious person and I wont hire him. Would you like your daughter to marry a guy that has 4 criminal charges against him in 5 years? We do not discriminate on benign features like color but we should discriminate on behavior—a big difference.

      3. So how about those kids at the high school last month ? You wish to impose a lifetime ban on them from any job associated with children?
        You judge the trespassing charge rather harshly. perhaps she was just walking her dog in the woods and some crazy person had her arrested.
        Do you remember the case between Nancy Polluci and Catherine Graham? All Nancy was doing was jogging on a path she had jogged on for years.

    2. There is a monumental difference between someone who has tried drugs in their past and someone who has had criminal drug charges brought against them.

  2. I’d be interested to know if the job application asks if the applicant has ever been arrested for a drug offense (seems like a school one would) and, if so, how this person answered.

    1. By law a job application cannot ask if you have been arrested. Only charged and convicted of a crime.

  3. What were her actions from the time she was hired, till
    the time she was fired? That’s what she should be judged on.

  4. Before hiring, employers should google and look at the Facebook page of potential employees.

  5. The charter school should have had a better employment agreement. No one likes to read or think through contracts when they’re drafted or when they sign them…it’s too much work, I guess.

    This clause speaks to terminating a contract IF a program (not the person) is not working.

    “The Director may terminate this contract at any time during the contract period if he determines, in his judgment, the program is not working to meet the needs of the students.”

    I hope the parties can work this out without causing further harm to the woman’s reputation or the school’s finances.

  6. Thinking MV should get your wallets and pocketbooks ready. Judge Casper and all other MA liberal judges assigned to this joke lawsuit will guarantee that Ms. Billing is unfairly compensated in a big way.

    1. We’ve yet to learn what kind of settlement Ms. Kershaw will get from the town of TIsbury. Oh, yes, strange behavior is rewarded in this inverted world.