Pennsylvania Record

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Commonwealth Court affirms discharge for ex-administrator who accused Easton Area School District of retaliation

State Court

By Charmaine Little | Jul 18, 2019

Judge Ellen Ceisler

PHILADELPHIA – On July 9, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a ruling against a former Easton Area School District music teacher who sued for retaliation.

Stephen T. Furst challenged the ruling from the non-jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County. He initially sued the Easton Area School District and the Easton Board of Education after being fired. He said he was let go as a result of the district retaliating against him after he reported a then-colleague’s inappropriate behavior. 

He accused the district and the board of infringing on his rights under the Whistleblower Law. While he took issue with the lower court ruling against him, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the decision.

Judge Ellen Ceisler authored the case. Judges Mary Hannah Leavitt and Robert Simpson also sat on the panel. 

The court first looked at whether Furst provided enough evidence that he was retaliated against. 

“The trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding Furst failed to sustain his burden of demonstrating that the District demoted, then investigated and considered terminating him, in retaliation for his 2012 report concerning [his colleague Drag],” Ceisler wrote. She also said his concern that the lower court’s ruling weighed heavily against the amount of evidence he presented had no grounds.

The court also disagreed with Furst’s claim that the lower court ruled he was properly discharged. It pointed out that he actually received a promotion after he reported the colleague, and three years went by from the actual incident to Furst’s discharge.

As for Furst’s argument that the verdict was inconsistent, Ceisler wrote, “There was nothing inconsistent in the court’s subsequent verdict in favor of the district. Carrying Furst’s argument to its logical conclusion, a jury could never render a verdict for a defendant in a case where the trial court denied a nonsuit motion at the end of the plaintiff’s case. That is simply not the law.”

Furst then attempted to call out the lower court for not allowing evidence related to the hearing before the Department of Education and also took issue with the lower court allowing the district’s solicitor, John Freund, to testify.

“Furst does not point to anything in Freund’s testimony that would have been dispositive in the case,” Ceisler wrote.

Furst worked for the district from January 1985 to December 2015. His titles ranged from a music teacher to orchestra director and other administrative roles. 

He claims that in 2012 he was told the district’s director of information technology, Tom Drago, was accessing his work computer from a remote location. Furst was convinced the access wasn’t green-lighted by the district and told the superintendent. An investigation was launched but Drago resigned before his termination hearing. 

Furst took things further and told the police, who launched a criminal investigation. A grand jury determined Drago abused his authority and violated several regulations from the District’s Acceptable Use Policy and the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act.

In 2013, a new superintendent, John Reinhart, came on board and modified Furst’s position, which was director of teaching and learning. It was divided into two different positions, one for kindergarten through sixth grade and one for seventh through 12th grade. Furst wasn’t kept on board for either of the positions but was reassigned to middle school building principal. 

In 2015 he was promoted to a new position, director of assessment and accountability. Furst then claimed his computer wasn’t “properly transmitting his outgoing emails,” according to the lawsuit. His concerns ironically sparked an investigation that allegedly led to inappropriate photographs on his computer being exposed. Furst insisted they weren’t his photos and said another employee must have put them there. 

Furst ultimately signed a resignation and retirement agreement. He then sued with retaliation claims but the trial court ruled that he was properly discharged. Furst then filed an appeal.

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