Let me preface this post by acknowledging the obvious: This upcoming story is a bit like watching a car wreck. You know you shouldn’t look and it really doesn’t have anything to do with you, and yet you can’t help but stare. The story of a new lawsuit probably doesn’t merit a post, but some lawsuits are just too outrageous to leave alone. And while I normally attach pictures to the posts, for reasons that will be obvious in a moment, I’m going to hold back on the pictures for this one. (If you’re really curious, The Smoking Gun has posted pictures though I caution that they may not be appropriate for your workplace.)
So what’s the car wreck? A new lawsuit filed in federal court last week by a teacher who claims she was forced to resign after an appearance on the Howard Stern show. But it wasn’t just "any" appearance, it was an appearance for a contest on the "Hottest Wife/Ugliest Husband". CT News Junkie had the story on it a few days ago as did the Meriden Record-Journal. Because it is picking up interest in some employment law circles (H/T Delaware Employment Blog), I’ll add a bit of perspective on it.
The lawsuit, filed by Marie Jarry can be downloaded here. She alleges that on April 30, 2008, she called in sick to work. She worked as an elementary school teacher in Southington, Connecticut. The next day, however, she appeared with her husband on the Howard Stern show. She then alleges that the school day after she returned to work, she was told not to report to class. She was told, allegedly, that she violated the "morality" clause of her contract and that she had also used a sick day (when she was not sick). She alleges that she was then pressured to resign.
She has brought claims against her employer under Section 1983 (claiming her procedural due process rights were violated), Section 1983 (for gender discrimination and violation of her equal protection rights), negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligence (under Conn. Gen. Stat. 52-557n). She has also sued her union under a claim of "duty of fair representation". (The lawsuit claims it has seven counts, but there are only five listed). All told, she has sued the Southington school board, her former union, and the school superintendent. No appearance has been made for the defendants yet.
In thinking about this case, I can’t help but think of the irony of this case compared with a case down south last month which held that a female employee was subjected to a "hostile work environment" because of the "vulgar radio programming" in her workplace. And what was that vulgar programming? The Howard Stern show of course (you can read the court’s fairly graphic discussion here).
While the particulars of this case will play out in court, what is striking about the complaint is the unwillingness to acknowledge that the teacher bears any responsibility for what occurred. After all, the teacher called in "sick" (when she wasn’t) and appeared in a bikini on a radio show that courts have noted for its "vulgarity". Did the teacher really think that no consequences would flow from her actions? And what did she expect the school board to do? Ignore what happened?
It’s hard to see from the facts alleged that the school system is in the wrong here. (As I’ve cautioned readers in the past, however, allegations in a complaint are only that — allegations — and that nothing should be taken as a proven fact). The school system heard about allegations of one of their teachers and after discussions with her about the appropriateness of her conduct (and the seriousness of the allegations), she resigned — rather than face additional publicity and possibly a firing.
For employers, the lawsuit is an example that even when the employer believes it is right in its employment decisions, it may still face a lawsuit for its actions. Proper documentation and following procedures are steps that employers can always take to increase the likelihood that their actions will be upheld by courts later on, if lawsuits are brought.