Almost a decade after it was filed, a discrimination and slander lawsuit against the Hampton Bays School District has been decided, with the outcome favoring the district.
John Petrone, a former student teacher and secondary school social studies teacher, sued the district in September 2003, alleging that he was forced to resign a year and a half earlier because of what he considered discriminatory pressure to do so based on a preexisting mental illness that required an extended leave of absence. He was seeking unspecified monetary damages from the district.
Mr. Petrone, who now lives and works as a principal in California, declined this week to comment on the court ruling, which was handed down on Friday, July 12, in U.S. District Court. He referred all questions, including whether or not he plans to appeal, to his attorney, William Brooks. Mr. Brooks did not respond to an email or calls left at his office in Central Islip.
Although he was not employed by the district at the time of the resignation and filing of the litigation, current Hampton Bays Schools Superintendent Lars Clemensen said he was pleased with the ruling. He added that there have been no changes in how the district handles employees with preexisting medical conditions.
“The district handles all procedural changes in accordance with state law,” he said. “During my tenure with the district, there have been no changes in which the district handles or screens for preexisting conditions with its faculty as a result of this.”
Mr. Petrone took an extended leave of absence about four months into his first year of teaching, before earning tenure, to deal with newly diagnosed panic and anxiety disorders, conditions that he never informed his employer about, according to court documents. In his filing statement, Mr. Petrone said he had been taking medication since 2000 to help curtail feelings of nervousness he felt related to public speaking, prior to beginning his stint as a student teacher in Hampton Bays in January 2001. When he began working full-time that fall, he claimed he did not have time to visit his doctor anymore and, therefore, could not get the required medication.
What began as a flushness in his face when addressing his class in October 2001 escalated to intense feelings of nervousness by January 2002, according to court documents. Mr. Petrone first sought treatment for what his doctor diagnosed as a generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder on January 9, 2002. The following day, after suffering a panic attack while walking across the parking lot to work, he decided to seek time off to adjust to new medication based on the recommendation of his physician, Dr. William Packard.
What started as a request for 10 days off—the maximum allowed under the district’s labor agreement—soon evolved into a request for extended unpaid time off, and eventually an unpaid leave of absence. Despite multiple efforts made by the defendants, namely then-Superintendent Bruce McKenna and then-Assistant Principal Samuel McAleese, to obtain a timetable from Mr. Petrone regarding his possible return to work and details about his illness, the teacher never provided them with either, according to court documents. In a February 8, 2002, letter from Mr. McKenna to Mr. Petrone, the superintendent directed the teacher to contact administrators and provide them with a prognosis report on his condition, stressing the importance of “continuity of instruction” for the students.
In the same letter, Mr. McKenna offered Mr. Petrone the option of a fixed term leave of absence without pay through the end of the school year and informed him that the administration intended to request that the Hampton Bays Board of Education designate the leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which would entitle him to medical benefits. Mr. Petrone did not speak with Mr. McKenna or Mr. McAleese before the board meeting as directed, according to documents.
Shortly after the meeting, Mr. Petrone called the district and asked a secretary what happened. The secretary informed him that he had been placed on extended medical leave, which Mr. Petrone believed extended to the fall and, therefore, meant he wouldn’t have to speak to Mr. McKenna.
There is some dispute as to whether Mr. McKenna attributed Mr. Petrone’s absence to a “nervous breakdown,” and Stephen Lerner, the district’s former teacher union representative, testified that Mr. McKenna referred to Mr. Petrone as “a nut” on multiple occasions, records show. After Mr. Petrone’s resignation, Mr. McKenna told the School Board in an executive session that Mr. Petrone was a “lousy teacher” and posed “no great instructional loss” and circuit court evidence showed that Mr. McKenna also referred to Mr. Petrone as “retard,” “Special Edna” and “Crystal Meth.”
After a meeting with Mr. McKenna and Mr. McAleese, Mr. Lerner advised Mr. Petrone that his termination was imminent because the administration was frustrated by his lack of communication about his illness and extended absence. Records state that Mr. Lerner recommended that Mr. Petrone resign so he could collect two weeks pay as well as full disability benefits, neither of which would be available if he were fired.
On March 4, 2002, Mr. Petrone resigned, stating in a letter that he did not want to do so but felt he had no choice because the district “intended on terminating (him) regardless.”
However, the district’s health provider, which had the final say in what benefits employees receive, denied Mr. Petrone coverage based on his preexisting medical condition. Mr. Petrone attempted to rescind his resignation, but to no avail, after which point he filed the lawsuit alleging that the district forced him to resign because of his mental illness, denied him due benefits and slandered his name.
But the court granted summary judgment to the defense and found that the district did not have to grant Mr. Petrone leave when he displayed no intention of returning to work or being able to carry out the duties of his job. The court also found that Mr. McKenna’s statements were not the only force behind Mr. Petrone’s resignation as the teacher had expressed doubt about wanting to return to Hampton Bays to Dr. Packard.
The court, however, declined to rule on the slander allegations, identifying them as a matter of state law rather than federal law.
Mr. Petrone has been employed by the Gustine Unified School District in California since June 2004, and currently serves as principal for two of the district’s high schools. In 2008, he was named the Gustine High School Teacher of the Year, according to court documents.