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5-24-17

Former Park Hill worker suing
school district
Discrimination, retaliation alleged

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark editor

A former Park Hill employee filed a lawsuit against the school district alleging she suffered adverse employee actions after returning from a short-term disability leave.

Terri Sandridge, 59, of Kansas City, filed an employee discrimination lawsuit on Thursday, May 11 alleging she had been discriminated against, retaliated against and denied payment for overtime following a six-week long medical leave.

Eligible under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Sandridge, who worked in the district for 17 years, went on short-term disability after having her toe amputated on Nov. 11, 2015.

According to the lawsuit, upon her return to the accounts payable office, her supervisor, Jeanne McDowell, allegedly criticized Sandridge for being absent for too long and advised her that she was being placed on an action improvement plan, due to performance problems in the months leading up to her medical leave.

McDowell allegedly told Sandridge that the action plan had “nothing to do with (her) disability.” Instead, McDowell allegedly asserted that an audit of Sandridge's work was deliberately performed in her absence.

Sandridge alleges she was singled out for this type of performance audit, but adhered to the terms of the proposed 90-day action plan. From documenting her work to reporting to human resources and McDowell on a bi-weekly basis, Sandridge alleges she complied with their demands.

During each meeting, Sandridge alleges she was disciplined for making minuscule errors, such as typos, which were also made on a regular basis by employees without disabilities, according to the lawsuit.

Before she requested accommodations for her disability by asserting her right to take a medical leave, Sandridge alleges she could work overtime to complete her workload. But, according to the lawsuit, after she returned from medical leave and was given an increased workload as part of the action plan, McDowell allegedly told her she was no longer allowed to document any overtime.

The lawsuit alleges Sandridge was being retaliated against for exercising her right provided by the FMLA.

When Sandridge tracked her overtime against McDowell’s wishes, McDowell allegedly manually reversed her overtime hours in the system. The lawsuit alleges this clearly violates Missouri statutes, which require employers to pay employees time and a half for hours over a 40-hour workweek.

“In the course of perpetrating these unlawful practices, defendant Park Hill willfully failed to keep accurate records of all the hours worked by plaintiff,” wrote Sandridge's attorneys Ryan Paulus and Brittany Mehl.

According to the allegations in the lawsuit, rather than receiving an overtime check Sandridge was handed a pink slip terminating her employment with the district on April 20, 2016.

Attorney Paulus and Mehl argue that their client's “disability status” played a role in the alleged intentional discrimination and retaliation. They contend Sandridge's physical impairment limits her from completing essential life activities, which qualifies her as a member of a protected class under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

Agents of Park Hill “failed to make good faith efforts to establish and enforce policies to prevent illegal discrimination against its employees, including discrimination against employees with disabilities,” alleges her attorney.

The suit also alleges the district failed to accommodate Sandridge's reasonable request for medical leave to undergo treatment for her apparent on-going disability. Instead, the suit alleges she was placed on an action plan and fired within three months after returning from medical leave.

The FMLA is designed to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees for exercising their right to take a medical leave. It is also designed to protect employees from retaliation.

The lawsuit states due to the district's “willful, wanton, malicious” and intentional disregard for Sandridge's rights, the district should be ordered to compensate Sandridge to prevent any further misconduct against employees with disabilities.

Sandridge is seeking to collect unpaid overtime pay, back-pay and attorneys' fees.

Sandridge followed the proper channels to bring the case to a court of law, as indicated in court documents. She received a right-to-sue letter from the Missouri Commission of Human Rights on March 29 and filed the lawsuit within the 90-day deadline.

Reached for comment on the court filing, Dr. Jeanette Cowherd, Park Hill superintendent, responded:

“While I cannot discuss any current litigation, I can tell you that we work hard to treat our employees fairly here in the Park Hill School District. We carefully follow our policies that prohibit discrimination and retaliation, and we provide a great deal of feedback and assistance, often for a long period of time, to help employees who are struggling to meet our expectations.”