Judge won't dismiss former employee's case against Valley Day School

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jun 4, 2015

PHILADELPHIA – The former longtime finance director of a local school for special needs students had most of the claims levied against his ex-employer survive a defense motion to dismiss in federal court.

Senior Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled Thursday to dismiss in part and grant in part a motion to dismiss brought by Valley Day School in Morrisville in a lawsuit brought by Jeffery Brooks.

According to his lawsuit, Brooks, a Levittown resident and former 24-year veteran finance director at Valley Day School, was a longtime sufferer of “various mental health impairments” such as panic attacks and depression.

Though his condition was treated with regular doses of medication, several symptoms persisted. These included anxiety, irregular sleep patterns, difficulty in social interaction and impaired brain function – which Brooks maintains he shared with Valley Day School management over the course of his employment.

Brooks said towards the end of his employment, he was working on an audit of the school lunch program. Due to the “nature of the project,” as well as some personal issues occurring at home, Brooks claimed he began to have severe flare-ups of his disability. These same flare-ups led Brooks to have severe panic attacks.

Per his complaint, Brooks explained he informed school management about his flare-ups and panic attacks, and requested assistance on the audit project. However, Brooks said the school refused to accommodate his request.

Subsequently, Brooks was summoned to a meeting with the school’s Board of Directors in May 2013. Before the meeting, Brooks claimed he asked his supervisor at the school, Geoffrey Axe, whether he should inform the Board of Directors that the severity of his depression had recently increased.

Axe allegedly told Brooks he should not reveal his mental state to the Board of Directors “because it would cause problems.”  During the May 2013 meeting, Brooks said he was not reprimanded regarding his performance and was not threatened or told that he was going to be terminated.

Near the end of May 2013, Brooks requested two months off through the Family and Medical Leave Act to seek treatment for appendix and liver issues. When he returned from his medical leave that July, Brooks said he told management of his increased depression and panic attacks, at which time he said the climate of management towards him changed.

Brooks said he was “threatened with discipline, ostracized, and spoken to ‘abruptly’ by defendant’s management.” Then, one week after he returned from his FMLA leave in July 2013, Brooks claimed he was called into a meeting with Axe, and Harlan Joseph, a member of Valley Day School’s Board of Directors, to discuss the audit project he had been working on.

During that meeting, Brooks reiterated the condition of his mental state to school management and added he was led to believe he would be disciplined, but not terminated.

On or about Aug. 28, 2013, Brooks alleged he was terminated from his employment with Valley Day School without any explanation or reason, though in his lawsuit, he claimed it was because of his health conditions, requests for accommodations and time off through the FMLA.

Brooks filed his lawsuit last September, alleging the school discriminated and retaliated against him for his disability, and in the process, violated provisions of the FMLA, Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act.

Buckwalter cited federal law appellate precedent in explaining why the claims for violations of the FMLA would be retained in Brooks’s suit.

“Plaintiff’s allegations are sufficient to state both an interference claim as well as a retaliation claim,” Buckwalter stated.

“The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held ‘that firing an employee for a valid request for FMLA leave may constitute interference with the employee’s FMLA rights as well as retaliation against the employee.’ Accordingly, plaintiff may proceed with both his interference and his retaliation claims under the FMLA, and defendant’s motion to dismiss the FMLA interference claim is denied.”

However, Buckwalter did accede to the defense’s request to dismiss compensatory and punitive damages relating to Brooks’ claims of FMLA violations.

“In light of plaintiff’s concession that he does not seek either punitive damages or compensatory damages for pain and suffering for his FMLA claims, this aspect of defendant’s motion is granted,” Buckwalter opined.

Finally, Buckwalter explained the compensatory and punitive damages related to the ADA claims brought by Brooks would survive Valley Day School’s motion to dismiss.

“Because it is unclear at this point in the litigation whether plaintiff can adequately plead a ‘disability’ under the ADA, or whether plaintiff can adequately plead that the related discrimination rose to the level of malice or recklessness, the Court need not, nor will it, decide whether particular damages attach to a plausibly pleaded claim under the ADA,” Buckwalter said.

“Therefore, the Court denies defendant’s request, at this stage, to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for compensatory and punitive damages for retaliation under the ADA.”

The plaintiff is seeking prevention of further discrimination against any and all employees; compensation for past lost earnings, future lost earnings, salary, pay increases, bonuses, medical and other benefits, training, promotions, pension and seniority; punitive damages; attorneys fees and court costs; and any other relief the Court deems just or appropriate in this case.

The plaintiff is represented by Christine E. Burke and Ari Risson Karpf of Karpf, Karpf & Cerutti in Bensalem.

The defendant is represented by Jonathan P. Riba of Sweet Stevens Katz & Williams, in New Britain.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-05506

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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