Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Appeals Court Signals Remand of Petrilli Case

School District Attorney Argues
Plaintiffs should Sue School Councils
Rather than Superintendents
in School-based
Racial Discrimination Claims

Ruling Expected in Mid march

During Oral Argument before the Kentucky Court of Appeals today, two judges openly and repeatedly expressed doubts about Fayette County Circuit Court Judge James Ishmael’s threshold instruction to the jury in Petrilli v Silberman.

In deliberation during the trial, jurors were only allowed to consider whether they thought former Booker T Washington Principal Peggy Petrilli had resigned voluntarily. The jury made their decision while looking at a handwritten resignation letter from Petrilli that read, in its entirety, “I hereby resign my position in the Fayette County Schools” with no effective date.

None of the other issues related to civil rights, retaliation, or whistleblower claims were considered by the jury since they found her resignation to be voluntary.

That result undermined J Dale Golden’s constructive discharge claim and exonerated Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman and the Fayette County Board of Education.

Responding to an argument from Golden, Judge Kelly Thompson said, “I don’t agree with that threshold instruction either…” Later during John McNeill’s argument, Judge Glenn Acree said, “I, too, have a problem with this instruction…I’m not sure a jury understands [everything that goes into making a resignation] voluntary.”

McNeill argued that the superintendent and board weren’t guilty of anything, that the jury instruction was proper because it contained the word “voluntary,” and that Golden’s assertion of constructive discharge was made “without evidence.”

Judge James Lambert made no specific assertions during questioning but only two judges are needed to prevail on any particular point of law.

The only clue about the court's leaning on the central issue of whether Petrilli voluntarily resigned came from Judge Acree who said at one point, “It sounds like she didn’t want to leave.”

I'm no attorney but it sounds like this case may be headed back to Fayette County. But we won’t know for sure until sometime in mid March. A ruling is expected in 30 to 45 days.

Each side was given 15 minutes to argue points of law and procedures before the court. Golden, representing Appellant Peggy Petrilli, chose to argue for 10-minutes and reserve 5-minutes for rebuttal. John McNeill, representing Stu Silberman and the Board of Education used all 15-minutes for argument – thus allowing Golden to speak first and last.

Most of the court’s attention was on the threshold jury instruction, and the question of whether Kentucky’s school council laws have the effect of insulating superintendents and school boards from discrimination claims.

What did the school board do wrong? one judge asked. You tell us about the Clarks and Ms Berry but what about the board?

“If there is a racial discrimination claim, who would you sue?” Acree asked repeatedly. McNeill opined that one must sue individual school council members. Golden argued that it was appropriate to sue the superintendent who is ultimately in charge of everything.

The district filed a Cross Appeal claiming that Judge Ishmael should have issued a directed verdict on all of Petrilli’s claims because they all lacked evidence. During a pretrial hearing, Judge James Ishmael had rejected the district's request for summary judgment saying,

"Right now, I’m not comfortable that the facts are so undisputed, that I feel comfortable making a ruling as a matter of law."
Golden argued that all of Petrilli’s other claims should have survived any resignation. For example, if a woman is raped at work, she does not have to keep working there to have a case, Golden said.


Reday000 Adjourned. Court indicates it will respond in 30 to 45 days.
Reday000 when asked...says Buddy Clark was disbarred in Chicago.
Reday000 Golden: Voluntary was not defined. Threshhold question was inappropriate.
Reday000 Golden rebuttal begins. Thompson demures on sanction question.
Reday000 McNeill denies sanctionable conduct.
Reday000 McNeill defending jury instruction because it contained the word voluntary.
Reday000 Acree: I, too, have a problem with this instruction...not sure jury understands what voluntary means...
Reday000 Acree: If there was a racial discrimination claim, who would you sue?
Reday000 District filed cross appeal saying there should have been a directed verdict on all of Petrill's claims.
Reday000 Acree: "It sounds like she didn't want to leave."
Reday000 McNeill says constructive discharge claim was without evidence.
Reday000 McNeill is up.
Reday000 Golden: "This was a hatchet job."
Reday000 Golden goes after McNeill's conduct during trial.
Reday000 Golden argues whistleblower & civil rights claims should survive any resignation.
Reday000 Brenda Allen is in attendance.
Reday000 ...what did the school board do?
Reday000 Thompson: "I don't agree with that threshhold instruction either. That's not my problem...
Reday000 Each side gets 15 minutes. Golden goes first.
Reday000 Lambert presiding. Welcomes and introduces.

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