Wednesday, July 16, 2008

PA teacher sues over alleged disability discrimination

From the Pocono Record July 16:

EAST STROUDSBURG — An art teacher in the East Stroudsburg Area School District has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the school district violated state and federal law when it allegedly harassed her because of her mental illness.

Aynne M. Polinski of Canadensis, who suffers from bipolar disorder, contends the district harassed her by requiring her to submit quarterly medical reports for 12 years regarding her disability.

In her complaint, she said she was made to submit these reports to the district in addition to the medical records her doctor had provided, which certified that she was receiving psychiatric care and taking medication. The requirement to submit the reports was "oppressive, burdensome, harassing and humiliating," according to the complaint filed on June 27 by Kimberly Borland, Polinski's attorney, in U.S. Middle District Court in Scranton.

Rachael Heath, the school district's superintendent, referred questions on the case to John Freund, the attorney representing the district. He could not be reached for comment.

Polinski teaches art at J.T. Lambert Intermediate School and started working for the district in 1973, at the J.S. Bunnell School, according to court documents. She said in her complaint that her bipolar condition has limited her ability to think, interact socially, perceive events, sleep and work. But she adds that she has been able to do her job in a "competent, professional and workmanlike manner."

In April 1993, Polinski suffered an emotional breakdown in the classroom, and was required by the district to take off for the rest of that school year, according to court documents. She continued her sabbatical the following year.

Upon returning to work, she was asked to submit quarterly reports every three months. Polinski alleges that this treatment was intended to make working for the district so "burdensome, oppressive and intolerable" that she would quit.

She checked into the hospital briefly in October 2003 for further treatment.

Polinski first filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC found that, in requiring Polinski to submit regular reports in addition to her doctor's clearance, "the evidence clearly show(ed)" that the district harassed her, according to a 2006 opinion by Marie Tomasso, director for the commission's office in the Philadelphia district.

Submitting regular mental health reports is more typically required of doctors and lawyers, especially when they apply for licenses in new jurisdictions, said Jennifer Mathis, an attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. The civil rights organization in Washington, D.C., represents people with mental illnesses or mental retardation, but is not involved in Polinski's case.

"I think it's unlawful, uncalled for and none of their business," Mathis said of the district's requirement that Polinski submit reports. "It's imposing conditions that aren't imposed on the rest of us."

But Mathis added that the district had a right to ask for medical information when it is related to an employee's ability to carry out his or her job, or to determine if he or she needed special accommodation.

Polinski also has alleged that the district — and Patricia Baughman, who was then J.T. Lambert's principal and now serves as assistant superintendent for personnel for the school district — harassed her in three other ways.

Polinski said Baughman prorated her pay as adviser to the Art Club to account for time missed while she was on sabbatical; required Polinski in 2003 to apply and interview for that position, which she had created; and asked a custodian to dump art projects, supplies and personal property from Polinski's classroom at the end of the 2003-04 school year. The district said the room-cleaning was part of a regular, end-of-year process.

The EEOC said it saw no violation in these additional claims, but Polinski cites them in her federal complaint.

Tomasso, of the EEOC, also noted in 2006 that a conflict resolution process had begun, but it is not clear what happened during the period leading up to Polinski's court filing last month.Polinski's complaint cites the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Pennsylvania disability law under the Human Relations Act. She seeks damages for emotional distress, harassment, disturbance and inconvenience, and payment of legal fees. While the complaint does not specify tangible costs, it states that the matter rises above $100,000 in damages.