WINTHROP WOMAN, LAWYER TAKE $60,000 TO SETTLE LAWSUIT AGAINST SCHOOL DISTRICT
A former bookkeeper and payroll clerk for a Winthrop-area school district split $60,000 with her law firm in settling an employment discrimination and retaliation charge against the district.
Jennifer Ma Sims, of Winthrop, won the support of the Maine Human Rights Commission in a 3-1 vote before suing Alternative Organizational Structure 97, which was composed of Winthrop and Fayette schools.
Peter Bickerman and two other attorneys at Lipman & Katz represented Sims in the cases at the Maine Human Rights Commission action, and then in state and federal court actions. Sims is now employed at MaineGeneral Medical Center, Bickerman said.
"There was indeed a settlement and we're pleased," Bickerman said on Thursday, adding that neither he nor Sims would be able to comment further because they signed a confidentiality clause.
The settlement agreement was obtained through a request by the Kennebec Journal under the state's Freedom of Access Act and forwarded by attorney Melissa Hewey, of Drummond Woodsum, who represented defendant AOS 97 in the federal lawsuit.
Hewey said last week that no public money was paid toward the settlement. Instead, the settlement was paid through insurance. She also said her legal fees, too, were paid by the insurer, so she didn't provide an accounting of those.
Sims sued the Winthrop-Fayette school district in April 2014, saying that her termination on June 30, 2012, after almost a dozen years of work there was unlawful and discriminatory. Most of the claims were against the district's superintendent, Gary Rosenthal. Rosenthal directed all questions about the lawsuit to Hewey.
Sims said she was subject to illegal discrimination in employment when Rosenthal placed her on probationary status Sept. 15, 2011, "because of what he described as ‘numerous spelling, grammatical, and presentation errors' in two emails that Ms. Sims has sent to staff members on Sept. 8, 2011." Sims first filed her complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission against the district in January 2012.
After several more reprimands, Sims' contract was not renewed in June 2012.
Sims' lawsuit said, "The superintendent's adverse action against Ms. Sims was based solely upon her imperfect English grammar and syntax."
Sims is originally from Taiwan, and English is not her first language. The lawsuit noted Sims has lived in Maine for more than 30 years.
In one of the defense documents filed in federal court, attorney Hewey, says, "Plaintiff has conceded that four other supervisors have disciplined her for conduct similar to that giving rise to discipline by Superintendent Rosenthal, and she has claimed in her deposition that every single time she was disciplined, it was unjustified. Plaintiff nonetheless singles out the discipline imposed upon her by Superintendent Rosenthal as discriminatory for one reason: because he criticized her ability to effectively communicate in written English while she worked at AOS 97."
Sims sought compensatory, punitive and civil penal damages, as well as back pay and interest, plus the cost of the lawsuit, including her attorneys' fees.
The settlement agreement indicated that the district would pay $60,000 to settle all the claims and that all the parties would dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning it could not be brought again.
Sims received $15,000 for damages for lost wages and $15,342.34 for compensatory damages.
Lipman & Katz received $29,657.66 for attorneys' fees and costs, according to records in U.S. District Court in Bangor. The settlement document was signed in January.