Court tosses age bias lawsuit

Ex-county schools worker had already lost federal case

December 14, 2005|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

The state's highest court dismissed this week an appeal by a former Anne Arundel County public schools employee, saying he cannot bring in local courts the age bias claim he had already lost in federal court.

The Maryland Court of Appeals decision skipped the thorny issues at the core of the lawsuit.

It does not answer whether former media production specialist David Norville can sue the school system in state court on allegations that it violated federal law, or whether a local school board is considered an arm of the state and immune from such lawsuits.

The ruling sidesteps one potential outcome that worried school boards in Anne Arundel County and elsewhere. A decision against the board could have mapped a route for workers and students to make federal claims against public schools in state courts.

Officials feared that a loss by the school system over alleged violations of federal protections - including the Family and Medical Leave and Age Discrimination in Employment acts - would unleash litigation that would cost local boards and their insurers small fortunes to defend.

The outcome is a loss for Norville, of Dunkirk, who has been blocked from telling his story to a jury. Norville said yesterday that he feels that between the two court systems over seven years, he has been shut out.

It also is a setback for disability-rights advocates. They contended that restricting lawsuits in state courts that are based on federal laws is unfair because some workers have no other recourse.

The Court of Appeals, in a 24-page opinion issued Monday, said Norville's "claims were either fully raised and litigated in the federal District Court, or could have been raised in the federal action." He filed that case in 1999 and lost on legal issues.

The Court of Appeals had been asked to decide whether Norville's $2 million lawsuit could go to trial and, if so, whether damages should be limited to $100,000 because of a state law on liability.

Norville alleged in both the state and federal lawsuits that he was laid off for budgetary reasons in 1998 because he was 48 years old, the oldest and most highly paid of the school system's media specialists. School officials disputed his claim.

"We're pleased with the result," said Andrew J. Murray, senior assistant attorney with Anne Arundel County, who argued the case this fall for the school board. "The court has left open for another day the issue of whether or not an [Age Discrimination in Employment Act] claim against a local board of education" can be won in the face of a school board claiming it is immune from such lawsuits.

"We have believed all along that the U.S. District Court was correct in dismissing this case," said P. Tyson Bennett, lawyer for the school board.

Norville's lawyer, David C. Slade, disagreed.

"We have a states' rights issue, where the top court of Maryland has deferred to the federal courts to determine whether a local school board is a state agency or not," Slade said.

He maintained the legal questions had the potential to touch all state employees.

"I think this case presented such momentous questions to them that they figured out a way to punt," Slade said.

David Rocah, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said, "The issue is critically important to both the school boards and their employees - and the students who attend the school."

"It is inevitable that this issue will come up again," he said.

But, he said, probably not soon. Such cases typically settle out of court, or people lack the money to bring the lawsuits because, like Norville, they are jobless.

After his case was dismissed before trial in federal court, Norville sued the school system in state court. Again, all claims were dismissed.

He appealed. In its ruling, the Court of Special Appeals - the state's intermediate appellate court - gave each side something to complain about. The court upheld dismissing the state claims. It said the local school board was part of the state, and therefore has immunity from such lawsuits.

But it also said that immunity was tempered by a state law that allows claims of up to $100,000. Both sides maintained that the Court of Special Appeals was wrong. They asked the Court of Appeals to decide.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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