by Valerie Verkamp
After receiving a right-to-sue letter from the Missouri Commission of Human Rights, three former Park Hill School District employees are moving forward with an employment discrimination lawsuit against the district.
Plaintiffs Jana Lane, Dee Maher and Karen Brunk claim school officials took adverse and discriminatory action against them because of their age. Combined, the plaintiffs have 70 years' experience providing parent educational services to families with young children in the Parent as Teachers Program (PAT Program). The lawsuit alleges age was a factor in the decision to “constructively discharge” all three parent educators over the pivotal age of 40 and replace them with employees under the age of 40.
The lawsuit seeks to reinstate the plaintiffs' employment with back pay and award compensatory damages for emotional distress and mental anguish.
In the fall of 2014, school officials revealed it was the district's intention to restructure the Parents as Teachers Program amid budgetary changes and a slump in the number of families participating in the program.
The suit contends the district had discretion over how many families could utilize services through the Parent as Teachers Program and deliberately set stricter requirements above and beyond the statewide guidelines, which directly resulted in fewer families being served.
Lane began delivering parent education, including developmental screenings and home visits in October of 1991. After a period of 24 years, Lane was earning an annual salary of $31,000. When the district substantially altered the PAT Program in April of 2015 her salary was reduced to $17,000 per year.
Similarly, Maher's and Brunk's salaries were also nearly slashed in half, according to the lawsuit.
Cuts to the PAT Program were announced in an emergency meeting without the presence of the parent teachers. The older workers allege they were told in a separate meeting with defendants Dr. Linda Kaiser and Dr. Angela Currey to grin and bear it, because they could easily be replaced with “less experienced” teachers if they raised objections about the significant pay decrease.
Around the time their wages were being slashed, teachers' salaries in the district were gaining about a 2% pay increase. Lane, Maher and Brunk also held active teaching certificates. They claim this is an example of adverse action taken against them because of their age.
When the plaintiffs brought their concern about the reduction in their wages and the possibility of being replaced with younger teachers eager to work for less to defendant Dr. Jeanette Cowherd, she allegedly went on the defense by stating: “If you fire arrows into our camp, we will fire back,” states the lawsuit.
Soon thereafter, the suit alleges, a number of school officials made false remarks to school board members and actively participating PAT families about the program, including salary information and statistical data.
The Park Hill School District employed plaintiff Brunk since 1987 to serve as a parent educator. Brunk was earning a yearly salary of $9,794 and was meeting the goals set forth by the district, according to the lawsuit.
Still, her salary was cut to $4,250 per year. Despite the $5,544 pay deduction, Brunk moved forward with entering into a teaching contract. In review of the contract, she noticed several errors and requested to have those corrected. The suit alleges that when the district issued a revised version, her salary had once again been reduced.
The explanation justifying another pay cut had to do with her not attending mass screening events or group meetings. But over the past two decades, the suit says Brunk opted to make herself available for evening visits with families rather than participate in those events.
The district also imposed a new requirement making it mandatory for her to be on-call on evenings, weekends and during group meetings. Brunk indicated the new on-call requirement would make it impossible for her to carry out her duties as a parent educator because it conflicted with her other job.
Brunk then began looking for other employment opportunities within the district. But when she approached Dr. Linda Kaiser and Dr. Bill Redinger about a vacant ESL position listed on the district's website, she was informed the position had been filled, states the petition for damages. Brunk alleges the job posting was merely temporarily removed and re-posted weeks later.
In an answer filed with the court, the defendants claim Lane, Maher, and Brunk voluntarily resigned from their positions as parent educators in July of 2015. The defendants' affirmative defense to the courts states the older women failed to go through the proper channels when dealing with discrimination. They allege the teacher educators failed to pursue corrective opportunities offered by the Park Hill School District, thus are prohibited from seeking relief in court.
The district admits Dr. Curry, principal of the Gerner Family Learning Center, held a staff meeting to discuss the proposed restructuring of the PAT program. But the district denies not inviting the parent educators to the meeting and informing the parent educators in a subsequent meeting they could be replaced with “less experienced individuals.”
The defendants don't deny that the parent educators raised their concerns about restructuring of the program with Dr. Jeanette Cowherd. Yet, the district denies the parent educators expressed their concern of being replaced with younger workers.
With regards to Brunk's allegation that the district imposed a new on-call requirement, making it impossible for her to carry out her duties as a parent educator, the defendants acknowledge telling Brunk she needed to perform the required job duties but deny the requirement was new. Their response claims there is insufficient evidence to suggest Brunk wouldn't be able to carry out her duties as a parent educator due to an on-call requirement.
The district confirmed Brunk verbally expressed interested in an ESL position posted online as open to fill, but claims the position had been filled and denies reposting the position weeks later.
Age discrimination claim
To combat older workers from facing adverse employment actions because of their age, federal and state laws have been adopted to protect employees over the age of 40. Employers are prohibited from reducing their employees' salary due to an individual's age. Under the Missouri Human Rights Act, employers are forbidden to limit employees in all aspects that would deprive them of employment opportunities due to age.
Requested relief for these alleged discrimination actions are now in the hands of Platte County Circuit Court Judge James Van Amburg. The court will determine whether the employees sought the proper channels bringing this cause forward and whether their age was a contributing factor in their “constructive discharge.” If the court decides the defendants engaged in unlawful employment practices, relief can be granted in a variety of forms, including reinstatement with back pay and compensatory damages.