AUGUSTA — A former bookkeeper for Winthrop and Fayette schools is suing the district, claiming her termination after almost a dozen years of work was unlawful and discriminatory.
The complaint by Jennifer Ma Sims, filed through attorney Peter Bickerman, of Lipman & Katz, names Alternative Organizational Structure 97 as the defendant, but most of the claims are specifically against Gary Rosenthal, who was hired as district superintendent in late August 2011.
Sims won support for her claims from the Maine Human Rights Commission in December when commissioners voted 3-1 to find reasonable grounds to believe that she was subjected to illegal workplace discrimination and retaliation. In that claim, Sims said she was victimized because of her race, ancestry and national origin, and suffered retaliation in violation of the Whistleblower’s Protection Act when her employment was terminated June 30, 2012, after she refused to resign. Sims first filed a charge of discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission in January 2012, and amended it several times.
Sims’ contract was not renewed three weeks after she gave a school board member information about what she alleged was the use of the wrong fund to pay the food services director.
Sims had worked for the schools for 11 years — and prior to that for the town of Winthrop for six years. Sims had worked for the school department under four superintendents.
Rosenthal on Wednesday referred questions to attorney Elek Miller, of Drummond Woodsum, who represented the school district at the human rights hearing.
“With respect to the case, we are surprised and, quite frankly, appalled that Ms. Sims would continue to pursue these meritless claims,” Miller said via email after seeing a copy of the lawsuit. “The school department takes these matters very seriously. It did not discriminate or retaliate against Ms. Sims.”
At the commission hearing, Miller maintained that the district acted correctly, with “five different supervisors, including four different superintendents, over eight years documenting the same performance and professionalism issues.”
He said Rosenthal was addressing Sims’ communications’ performance. “Race and national origin had nothing to do with that,” Miller said at the time. “By failing to address it, (the) superintendent wouldn’t be doing his job.”
According to the lawsuit, Rosenthal placed Sims on “probationary employment status” in mid-September 2011, citing “numerous spelling, grammatical, and presentation errors” in emails sent by Sims to staff members. The substance of the email was correct, Bickerman says in the complaint. “The superintendent’s adverse action against Ms. Sims was based solely upon her imperfect English grammar and syntax,” the lawsuit says. Sims is originally from Taiwan and English is not her first language. The lawsuit says she has lived in Maine for 30 years.
The lawsuit also says Rosenthal reprimanded Sims again that November for paying an employee for an extra hour even though Sims did it correctly. A third reprimand occurred in January 2012 after Sims raised the food service director payment issue, which could have jeopardized the receipt of federal funds for school lunches, the lawsuit says.
The claims also say Rosenthal “mimicked Ms. Sims’ speech on occasion by speaking to other employees of AOS 97 in his version of a Chinese accent,” and that the alleged disrespect shown her left her isolated in the workplace.
It says that on June 1, 2012, Rosenthal indicated “she was expendable because, unlike him, she was not ‘on top of the food chain.’”
The district has had some turmoil and frequent turnover in its finance department recently, partly because of retirement and partly because a former food service director, budget coordinator and finance control officer who was placed on administrative leave in September 2012 later went on medical leave and then left the state.
The lawsuit says Sims filed the suit in Kennebec County Superior Court after being told by the Maine Human Rights Commission that conciliation efforts failed because the school district “declined to participate.” Bickerman said Wednesday that he wrote to Miller after the hearing but never got a response.
“Conciliation means settlement, and this is not the kind of case that is going to settle, because the school department did nothing wrong,” Miller said Wednesday.
The lawsuit charges the district “acted with malice” or with “reckless indifference” to Sims rights under the Maine Human Rights and Whistleblowers’ Protection acts and under federal law. It say Sims has suffered harm, including job loss, loss of income and emotional distress.
At the human rights hearing, Bickerman said Sims was working elsewhere but getting less pay and fewer benefits than she had in the school system.
Sims is seeking compensatory, punitive and civil penal damages; back pay and interest; plus the cost of the lawsuit, including her attorneys’ fees.