Thursday, October 21, 2010

Vineland Board of Education pays $60,000 to settle "whistle blower" suit

On December 9, 2009, the Vineland Board of Education (Cumberland County) agreed to pay $60,000 to and clear the disciplinary record of the assistant principal at the Landis Intermediate School.

In his suit, Richard Panas said that beginning in the 2007-08 school year, he noticed an increase in school violence at the Landis school which coincided with the replacement of the school's disciplinary code with a less strict version. Panas said that he shared his concerns with Superintendent Charles Ottinger and Principal Donald Kohaut but neither "made any serious effort to address the situation."

After the violence at the Landis school continued to escalate, Panas contends that he contacted the Board of Education members directly and told about "his unsuccessful effort to bring [the issue] to the administration's attention." This, Panas claims, caused Ottinger to discipline him for violating the Board's policies regarding "chain of command" and "media relations." As a result of the discipline, Panas claims he was put on "indefinite probation" and was being "monitored." He claims that his attempts to appeal the discipline were unsuccessful and that Kohaut and Ottinger took additional adverse action against him, including assigning him to hallway monitoring duty, giving him an adverse performance rating and forbidding him from speaking to teachers about violence at the school.

In addition to paying Panas $60,000 in damages, the school board also agreed to expunge the discipline and evaluation from Panas' personnel file and to not retaliate against him in the future.

The case is captioned Panas v. Vineland Board of Education, Federal Case No. 1:09-cv-03003 and Panas's attorney was Frank L. Corrado of Wildwood. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of Panas's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $60,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Vineland Board of Education or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Vineland Board of Education or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Panas $60,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.