Monday, August 15, 2011

Blindness Discrimination aka You're Joking Right?

 I am thinking of creating a blog section titled "Idiot's Guide to Creating a Monster Lawsuit" for the occasional cases I stumble upon in my review of Pennsylvania verdicts.  You see them in all areas of the law but stupid actions seem to abound in the employment law arena.  IF I was going to start this new section the case of Boone v. Pa. Department of Vocational Rehabilitation would be my first nomination.  Putting aside the horrific experience of the plaintiff Christine Boone, the irony though out this case seems like something written for an HBO sitcom.

The case concerned Plaintiff Christine Boone, 39, a blind attorney, who was hired as director of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, a department of within the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation of Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry in the spring of 2000. The trial evidence showed that Boone's immediate superior, executive director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, repeatedly made derogatory comments... about her blindness.  The head of Vocational Rehab is making fun of a blind attorney working for the Bureau for the Blind....are you kidding me?  Additionally, it was shown that the supervisor denied Boone reasonable accommodation for her disability and eventually caused her to be terminated from the agency on Aug. 14, 2003. Boone also claimed that the secretary of the Department of Labor and Industry, and his staff subsequently communicated to the public false statements about her dismissal.

Boone sued the Department of Labor and Industry and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, alleging discrimination, wrongful termination and defamation in violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, the Civil Rights Act, the First Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Boone claimed that harassing statements were made to her such as " You're ignorant of the broader scope of rehabilitation" and " You're focused too much on the blind." Boone also claimed she was told the National Federation of the Blind, which she belonged to, was a "washed up organization with no power at all" and that she was "too f-ing stupid to see that."  I am guessing the visual undertones of these comments were not even intended but this was just too much to believe.

After her supervisor was promoted to executive director, he refused to provide Boone with a Braille version of the agenda for his Monday morning staff meetings, despite her repeated requests.  These were just some of the allegations of unbelievably horrible treatment Boone was subjected to.

Boone also contended that, following a bogus suspension, she requested to meet with her supervisor's superior, to complain about the conduct, but was declined. The Boone, a few weeks later, was called into her supervisor's office, and told she was being let go for perfromance-base reasons, and ordered her to sign a termination letter (which was not in Braille).

Following the termination, Boone contended that individuals, organizations (such as the National Federation for the Blind and the Governor's Advisory counsel for the Blind) and Boone herself urged the superior to meet with her; his office declined, stating that Boone's dismissal was for "performance-based reasons involving behavior unacceptable from an employee" and that her termination was done with the best interests of the blind and the visually impaired community in mind."

Boone claimed that these false statements about her performance left professionals in her field with the impression that she committed serious misconduct. She claimed that Oregon's Department of Rehabilitation Services, when interviewing her, said they were concerned about the defendants' response to the public outcry over Boone's dismissal.

Plaintiff counsel presented more than 20 witnesses who testified to Boone's outstanding job performance, demand for post-termination hearing, and the fact that her reputation in the blind community was professionally ruined. Witnesses included former Pennsylvania Governor George Leader; top Commonwealth employee/labor leader Joan Bruce; employees and customers of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services; and, directors of state blind agencies for Iowa, Alan Harris, and New Jersey, Vito DeSantis.

The defense contended that there existed a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for Boone's termination: her refusal to implement a policy regarding Office of Vocational Rehabilitation's tuition/training benefits.

Boone's counsel countered that this reason was merely a pretext for her termination. Her counsel argued that Boone legitimately believed that the policy violated the federal Rehabilitation Services Act, and had sent a memo to the Rehabilitation Services Administration to voicing her concern. Boone's lawyers also maintained that her concern for the policy was protected under the First Amendment, and further pointed out that the former Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Dr. Fred Schroeder, testified that the office's policy which she questioned was illegal under federal law.

Plaintiff counsel also contended that her supervisor never had her sign the policy, although such an order was well within his purview. The defendants contended that Boone did not follow state procurement process in contracting with the hotel and blamed her for not keeping them apprised of the conference.

Boone sought reinstatement to her job as director of the Bureau of Blindness. If she could not be reinstated, she wanted $1,174,000 in front pay, based on her biweekly salary of $2,595 and on her annual increases projected until her retirement. Her counsel maintained that Boone had lasted through through Republican and Democratic administrations alike and would likely have remained in her position until retirement. He also noted her dedication and success with state blindness programs directed toward children, contending that the childrens' Braille program which she oversaw had "atrophied" following her forced departure.

Her claims also included damages for emotional distress and damage to reputation. Although the plaintiff did not present numbers for these damages to the jury, there were, however, questions on the jury form that allowed the jury to determine, consistent with what was fit and proper, emotional distress, reputation damages and punitive damages. In seeking punitives, no amount was presented to the jury. However, Boone's counsel elicited testimony that her supervisor had net worths of $750,000 and  $125,000.

The defense argued that Boone was offered a job in Washington, D.C., that paid about the same and that her professional friends in the blind community still thought highly of her.  After a 10 day trial, Boone was awarded $3,355,000.  It is not clear how the damages were apportioned amongst the defendants.

The defendants actions in this case just leave you scratching your head.  Congratulations to the attorneys that handled this and Boone for persevering until justice was rendered.

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