Schools, rights advocates watch as court to hear discrimination case

September 06, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

School officials and advocacy groups throughout Maryland are watching an age discrimination case that has the potential to affect the coffers of every state school system, as well as employees who think their districts wronged them.

At issue is whether workers can sue local school boards in Maryland courts over suspected violations of federal protections, which include the Family and Medical Leave Act and constitutional claims.

School officials fear that allowing these lawsuits in state courts would unleash potentially expensive litigation for local school boards.

Advocates for employees and people with disabilities say, however, that preventing those lawsuits is an unfair restriction on thousands of workers who might have no other way to collect damages.

The case, a clash between the Anne Arundel County Board of Education and a former media production specialist who lost his job there in 1998 at age 48, will be argued today before Maryland's highest court.

The Maryland Court of Appeals is being asked to decide whether David Norville's $2 million lawsuit can move toward trial and, if so, whether it must be capped at $100,000.

Both sides say the stakes are high in this case, which is likely to turn on fine legal points. The first is whether the state's sovereign immunity - which says it can't be sued unless it consents to be sued - extends to school boards, which are local bodies but are part of the state school system. The second is whether a school board can be sued in state court over a federal law.

"It will affect everybody. Regardless of your insurance coverage, the issue really is: Is your liability limited to $100,000, is there no liability or is there full liability?" said Andrew J. Murray, senior assistant attorney with Anne Arundel County who will argue the case.

The Anne Arundel school board is part of the county's self-insurance plan. This year, its bill is $6.5 million.

Seventeen of Maryland's school boards participate in the insurance pool of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, mainly to cover injuries, contract disputes and the like.

Weighing in for Anne Arundel County, the MABE said in a court brief that if local boards are denied immunity from lawsuits on federal claims, "the effect will be immense."

"I'd be impressed with a $2 million claim," said John A. Hayden III, president of the MABE and a member of the Baltimore County school board. "You don't build in claims like that in your budget, for heaven's sake."

The greater the risk, the pricier the insurance, he said.

"Any time that you expand the scope of claims that can be brought against a public entity like a school system, that has the potential to divert resources," said Stephen C. Bounds, director of legal and policy services for MABE, who said legal costs can hit six figures. "That is a lot of textbooks."

The Public Justice Center and Maryland Disability Law Center are among advocacy groups that have weighed in on Norville's side.

"The implications are very large. They certainly extend far beyond Mr. Norville," said Beth Mellen Harrison, a lawyer with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore.

Tens of thousands of employees, and perhaps students, "if their rights are violated under various federal statutes or federal constitutional claims, they will not be able to recover damages," she said.

Norville, who lives in Dunkirk, originally sued in 1999 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The claims were dismissed. In 2001, he sued in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. The claims were again dismissed.

The state's Court of Special Appeals ruled in December that Norville could sue under federal law in state court - but for no more than $100,000, the limit set for claims against the state.

Both sides maintain the intermediate appeals court got it wrong and appealed.

Said Norville, now 55: "I am fighting to get the right to go to trial."

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