Thursday, May 13, 2010

There's Nothing to See Here. Move Along.

Cowan Case Languishes in Fayette County Court

Last summer, when I was researching the Petrilli v Silberman case it was necessary to spend hours and hours going over court records. I read complaints, amended complaints, answers, amended answers, motions, counter motions, depositions and watched hours of courtroom mini-drama videos.

This past week, when an open records request from Fayette County was not quite ready on time, I found myself with a little time on my hands. So I tritsed myself back down to the Fayette County Court clerk's office for a peek at the Cowan case file. Thirty minutes and I was done.

I figured I'd ask Jesse Clark Counselor Jill Cowan's attorney, J Robert Cowan what was up.

Cowan apparently figured he wouldn't respond.

Here's the KSN&C Backstory. As readers will recall, Jessie Clark Middle School Counselor Jill L Cowan sued the Fayette County Public Schools and Jesse Clark Middle School Principal Lisa Goodin about a year ago, alleging she was denied an opportunity for promotion because of her gender. She is suing in Fayette Circuit Court for damages and a jury trial.

The case file shows little news and no activity over the past year. The case was assigned by lottery to Judge Ernesto Scorsone.

Cowan's complaint claims that "Goodin made various comments to Jill regarding Goodin's sexual orientation." That "Jill made it clear to...Goodin and [former Middle School Director Michael] Ernst that such comments were unwelcome" and as a result, Cowan claims, she was retaliated against.

Cowan's complaint alleged that Goodin refused to interview her for a promotion to associate principal after telling her, three times, that she intended to hire a man, was only interviewing men and that a man had, in fact, been hired. According to the complaint, when Cowan complained to FCPS Civil Rights Officer Barbara Connor, she was immediately suspended, and escorted from school grounds by police. The next day, FCPS Superintendent Stu Silberman sought out Cowan's husband a Bryan Station Middle School Associate Principal and told him "not to worry" that "everything was going to be OK."

Cowan claimed that the suspension violated district policy 03.173 which allows suspension with pay "only when the superintendent determines there is a justifiable need for an investigation of alleged employee actions necessary to protect the safety of students and staff or to prevent significant disruption of the workplace" and such suspensions are "not to exceed twenty days."

The district answered saying,
  • the complaint was barred by governmental immunity
  • federal civil rights claims were barred by the 11th amendment
  • no improper actions were taken
  • KRS 411.184 bars punitive damages
  • Cowan had no property interest in the extra duties she lost
  • she was no subject to adverse personnel action
  • she failed to exhaust administrative remedies
  • statute of limitations
  • defense is entitled to good faith immunity
  • Cowans' claims were dependent on the Jesse Clark Middle School Council - that as a matter of law, the principal has no authority to hire

Silberman's attorney added

  • He can't be held vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of FCPS employees
  • He conformed to the law
  • followed legal advice
  • was justified in his actions since he was required by law to investigate
  • If Silberman is found liable, any damage was due to others
  • KRS 411.184 bars "plaintiff claims for punitive damages" as such would violate Silberman's due process rights
  • It is JCMS school council's conduct that is in question

Goodin's lawyer said,

  • the complaint was too ambiguous and so Goodin denies
  • Cowan was not well-respected as an individual of professionally
  • denied that Cowan had excellent evaluations
  • none of Goodin's actions were motivated by sex
  • Claims should be barred because Goodin is not responsible for hiring
  • Any statements Goodin made were opinions and not actionable
  • Statements by Goodin were not defamatory

And similar from Ernst.

Maybe Silberman was right. Maybe everything is OK now. According to the Jesse Clark Middle school website, Cowan is still the counselor - and nothing is happening at the court house.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm...sexual orientation. There is that tabu subject again!

I failed to understand the connection to Mrs. Cowan from the way the article was written, but I do find it interesting in its connection to Michael Ernst, who certainly was known for making some highly inappropriate remarks to FCPS staff. Was Goodin the one who was making remarks about her sexual orientation?

Anonymous said...

Help! Am I an idiot, or what?

Why was a school guidance counselor who lodged a civil rights violation escorted from school grounds and suspended? Is that legal????

Richard Day said...

May 13, 2010 8:24 PM: "Was Goodin the one who was making remarks about her sexual orientation?"

That is Cowan's allegation.

May 13, 2010 8:27 PM: I suppose a court would have to determine the legality, but that event sure bothered me. If a person can't lodge a civil rights complaint without being suspended, I'm not sure there are civil rights. I'd like to know more about that incident but the case file doesn't help...and Cowan's attorney didn't respond.

Anonymous said...

This seems like nothing more than an attempt to try to discredit our wonderful superintendent Stu Silberman, our ethical former middle school director Michael Ernst, and a principal committed to diversity, Mrs. Goodin. Why even print the details of this misguided lawsuit?

Richard Day said...

Also, on the "connection to Michael Ernst, who certainly was known for making some highly inappropriate remarks to FCPS staff."

I missed that part of the Ernst dismissal story. I think WKYT had that story but I never was able to capture the essence of what really went on there. My search came up empty, I think, because some news outlets don't keep archives of stories and clear their hard drives after a certain amount of time. If anyone has a link for me I would appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering these questions. I'm VERY uncomfortable about the fact this Mrs. Cowan was suspended for filing a civil rights complaint. Why is she not pressing forward?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Day:

This lawsuit makes no sense at all. Is it available for public view at the courthouse?

I fail to understand the allegations or the responses from the attorney. Like other readers, I do not understand teh suspension of an employee who lodges a human rights violation. Is that even legal? Can you ask a lawyer on this one? Is this case going to be dropped from the docket for lack of prosecution?

Richard Day said...

May 14, 2010 9:49 PM: I don't know why the case appears to be just sitting there. Whena suit is filed, I don't talk to the principals but go through their attorneys. If they don't respond, I don't know. Attorneys are mor elikely to respond to newspaper reporters. It's how the process works.

May 15, 2010 2:10 AM: Once filed, civil suits become public documents and are available for review (and photocopying for a fee) from the court house.

I sure can't help with the suspension. That one puzzles me as well.

As I understand it (and I am NOT an attorney), the defenses are fairly standard for school districts and other governmental agencies. First, you claim the matter is not justiciable that it fails to state a claim, then you claim that you are innocent and besides, you are immunme anyway - and even if the judge disagrees and says you have to go to trial, it was all somebody's elses fault and you were just following the law.

Then, if it actually goes to trial, the jury has to sort it all out.

Honestly, I probably won't get into this case unless it develops. I've already written more than I thought I would.

I assume the ball is in Ms. Cowan's court.