Denise L. Morrow v. South Side Area School District, 2023 WL 6260107 (W.D. Pa 2023) (Federal court holds that a teacher who claimed she was subjected to a pattern of discipline and harassment that forced her to retire stated a viable claim for retaliation.)
Denise Morrow, who began teaching for the South Side Area School District in 1993, alleged that after a new superintendent was appointed in 2018, the school district deprioritized district programs for disabled students. Beginning in May 2019, the teacher complained to the superintendent and board members, as well as her principal and other administrators, that the school district was discriminating against disabled students by changing in-house programs for disabled students and failing to meet federally mandated standards for service to disabled students.
She alleged that her actions were met with a pattern of retaliation and harassment in the form of frequent changes in her job description, inconsistent and conflicting job assignments, denial of paraprofessional support, surprise observations by her supervisor, a reprimand, threatening her with a pre-disciplinary (Loudermill) hearing based on a false complaint, filtering her email, and denying her opportunities provided to other similarly-situated employees such as the ability to use a cell phone during school hours to contact parents and the option to work from home/bring her child to work when faced with a childcare issue.
The Court concluded that the Complaint “contextually and temporally” asserted a causal connection between the legally protected activity of advocating for disabled students and the school district’s adverse employment actions and, therefore, stated causes of action under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
The Court’s decision is a reminder that the timing of discipline or other adverse employment actions can lead to an inference of illegal retaliation against an employee. If an employee has recently engaged in some legally protected activity, such as complaining of discrimination, commenting on some policy that affects the public interest, or filing a grievance or other legal proceeding, the decision of an employer to impose discipline should be based only on some recent and compelling instance of misconduct or poor performance. A record of progressive discipline also can be crucial to confirm the validity of the employer’s concerns and to show that the reason given for the discipline is not merely a “pretext” for illegal retaliation.
December 20, 2023
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