Thursday, June 30, 2016

Bridgeton Board of Education to pay $25,000 to settle teacher's discrimination claim.

In a June 7, 2016 e-mail, Bridgeton Board of Education Secretary Nicole Albanese advised the Board's attorneys that the Board authorized a $25,000 settlement of a lawsuit filed by a third grade teacher who claimed that school officials discriminated against her by failing to accommodate her back injury.  According to a letter from the Board's insurer, the Board (i.e. the taxpayers) will be liable for a $15,000 deductible.

In her suit, Teresa Torres stated that she missed a month of work in October 2011 because of herniated discs in her back which she claimed "render[ed] her disabled within the meaning of the [New Jersey Law Against Discrimination] LAD."  She said that the pain got worse during Summer of 2012 which caused her doctor to order, at the start of the 2012-13 school year, "sedentary work restrictions and lifting of no more than 10 lbs."  She claimed that both Principal Rebecca Guess and HR Director Terrell Everett told her that they could not accommodate her doctor's restriction and that "you can't be in the building."

Torres said that she remained out of work until February 12, 2013 when she was able to return because school officials were then able to make proper accommodations.  But, on February 25, 2013, Torres' doctor issued new restrictions calling for her to "sit for six out of the eight hours in a working day, no lifting of more than 8 lbs, and no climbing or descending stairs."  Torres claimed that Leigha Saulin, who was responsible for accommodations, "did not know how to complete the accommodation plan, because she did not know what 'sedentary duties' were."  She said that her request for a teacher's aide was rebuffed.

Torres claimed that the Board refused to renew her contract due to her not having an ESL certificate.  She asserted that other teachers were not held to the same standard.

The case is captioned Torres v. Board of Education of Bridgeton, et al, Superior Court Docket No. CUM-L-1043-13 and Torres's attorney was Kevin M. Costello of Mount Laurel.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Torres' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Bridgeton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Torres $25,000 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.

Note: The court marked the case as having settled.  While it is possible that a dispute will arise prior to the settlement agreement being signed by the Board of Education, this rarely happens because the settlement has been negotiated and agreed to by all the parties.  Readers who wish to be absolutely sure that this case settled according to the terms stated above should submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the final, signed settlement agreement.