Judge allows suit by Charter School aide over firing

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

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.