A 60-year-old teacher will be able to proceed with an age-discrimination lawsuit against the Baltimore County Board of Education now that the Maryland Court of Appeals has cleared the way.
The appeals court upheld Thursday a lower court's ruling that the board could not claim sovereign immunity from such lawsuits.
Mireille Zimmer-Rubert, who was described in court documents as qualified to teach English, Spanish, German and French, had applied in March 2004 for a job as a foreign-languages instructor in county high schools. Her quest was unsuccessful, but she learned that younger teachers had been hired to fill positions for which she believed she was qualified. Zimmer-Rubert sued the school board in Baltimore County Circuit Court under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and demanded compensatory damages of $100,000 as well as attorneys' fees and costs.
In a ruling on May 25, 2007, Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski agreed with the school board's position that, as a state agency, it was not liable for Zimmer-Rubert's claim because it was protected by the sovereign-immunity provisions of the 11th Amendment, and that the school had not specifically waived its immunity. The amendment was put into the U.S. Constitution to protect state treasuries from being bankrupted by lawsuits brought by citizens invoking federal laws.
But the state's Court of Special Appeals reversed the Circuit Court ruling, saying the school board could not assert immunity to any claim of $100,000 or less. The case then went to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed that decision. Unless the school board appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, Zimmer-Rubert's lawsuit will go forward, her attorney, John B. Stolarz, said Friday.
Stolarz added that he had not yet spoken with his client because she was out of the country. "I'm sure she's going to be pleased," he said.
Leslie R. Stellman, a lawyer representing the school board, said his client was disappointed. The Court of Appeals' concluded, he said, that the board "is subject to lawsuits under federal statutes that, under the 11th Amendment, it should not have the obligation to defend against."
Until now, he said, the board routinely obtained court rulings dismissing such claims.
"But now we are afraid that the floodgates of lawsuits may be opening up," Stellman said. "This is going to cost the public unnecessary dollars that would be better spent in the classrooms at a time when, due to tight budgets, we are looking to spend every scarce dollar on improving teaching and learning."