Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Morris-Union Jointure Commission pays $60,000 to settle termination suit filed by teacher who alleged "improper touching" of a student.

On June 2, 2014, the Morris-Union Jointure Commission agreed to pay $60,000 to a Teacher Assistant who claimed she was fired after reporting that a male Teacher Assistant may have improperly touched a 9-year-old male student with Down Syndrome.

In her suit, Jeanine Somerville said that she was "abruptly terminated" from her Teacher Assistant position at the Commission's Union facility on June 30, 2011 even though her work had received good performance reviews.  She alleges that her termination was really caused by her report that another Teacher Assistant, Arthur Ciccione, may have acted inappropriately when taking a nine-year old autistic boy to the restroom on March 22, 2011.  Given that the student was non-verbal, he had scheduled restroom breaks.

According to the complaint, Somerville told Ciccione that the student stands when urinating and sits only if he "needs to poop."  Somerville returned to the restroom some time later and "noticed the child was sitting on the toilet and the Assistant's hand and wrist were out of eyesight under the child's testicles and buttocks area."  Somerville said that she was "alarmed at what she saw and asked the Assistant 'did he poop?'" According to the lawsuit, Ciccione "pulled his hand from under the child smoothly and with ease and stated in response, 'he was gaseous.'"  She noted that Ciccione was not wearing gloves and that there was no bowel movement in the toilet.

On March 24, 2011, Somerville said that she reported the matter to school principal Andrea Marmolegos and vice principal Kristen Szawan complied with their instruction to put her complaint in writing.  The next day, she claims she was "interrogated" by Superintendent Kim B. Coleman who asked her about her relationship with Ciccione, whether the two saw each other socially and if they were intimate.  She said she was called into the office on May 6, 2011 and given a termination letter effective June 30, 2011 which cited the reason for her termination as "economy and efficiency."

Also named in the suit was Business Administrator Susan Yaniro.

The case is captioned Somerville v. Morris-Union Jointure Commission, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. UNN-L-2336-12 and Somerville's attorney was Theodore Campbell of New Brunswick.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Somerville'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 the Morris-Union Jointure Commission or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that the Commission or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Somerville $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.