ACSU makes $100,000 payout, settles lawsuit by ex-employee
MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central Supervisory Union board on Wednesday settled a lawsuit filed by its former business manager, thereby averting a jury trial that was slated to begin on Monday, May 6.
The settlement, forged through several hours of mediation between officials representing the ACSU and plaintiff Sharon Stearns, calls for the district to pay her $100,000 in what her attorney, Norman Watts, referenced as “lost compensation and other damages.”
Stearns had filed the complaint in Rutland County Superior Court on Sept. 13, 2011, alleging among other things that she had been bullied by Lee Sease, who was ACSU superintendent at the time, and then placed on administrative leave after she complained about his behavior. She also alleged in her complaint that Sease became agitated and yelled at her when she asserted that he had not followed the laws relating to the mailing of annual reports and overtime compensation to hourly staff.
Stearns claimed she was denied the opportunity to plead her case before the ACSU board, a right she said was guaranteed by her employment contract.
Through her lawsuit she sought compensatory and punitive damages, reimbursement for attorneys’ fees “and other relief a jury might choose to award.”
A jury had already been drawn for the case and was scheduled to begin hearing the case on Monday.
In a quote provided through Watts, Stearns expressed relief that her complaint had been resolved.
“After nine years of being informed I was doing a great job as business manager, I was informed, in a very intimidating way, that some didn’t like my management style, when the real issue was Sease’s retaliation against me for being a whistleblower,” she said. “I was publicly humiliated repeatedly for doing what was right and legal. I’m pleased to have the real facts of the case come out and that the district is complying with the laws. That was my only real objective throughout this episode.”
The ACSU board chose not to renew Sease’s contract when it expired on June 30, 2011. He subsequently filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, claiming he had been unlawfully fired. He argued the ACSU board had missed a key deadline for announcing non-renewal of his contract, and also alleged he was not given reasons for his termination nor a chance to be heard on the matter. Sease requested the court award him damages, including lost wages and benefits.
ACSU officials announced in late February that the Sease lawsuit had been settled through mediation. Current ACSU Superintendent Gail Conley confirmed on Thursday that settlement money and associated legal fees incurred by the district in both legal cases will be covered by the ACSU’s insurance carrier, the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust. Terms of the Sease settlement have not been disclosed. Conley noted that Stearns received her full salary for the roughly six months she was on administrative leave.
Mark Perrin, ACSU board chairman, said he is pleased that both lawsuits have been laid to rest.
“It feels good,” he said. “Any time you have something like that hanging over your head, it feels like an incomplete resolution. Now it is resolved and we can move forward.”
Conley, who succeeded Sease in 2011 and will be retiring on June 30, was also pleased with the resolution. In a letter commenting on the accord that is part of the legal record in the Stearns case, Conley acknowledged Stearns’ complaints and questioned his predecessor’s track record. The letter is addressed “To whom it may concern.”
“On behalf of the board of ACSU, I can relate that there are substantial regrets about the previous superintendent’s leadership void in our ACSU central office during Sharon’s tenure,” Conley wrote. “This leadership void created a negative impact on the central office personnel, including Sharon.
“We have a keen respect for (Stearns’) professional standards as demonstrated by her persistence in accuracy and compliance matters,” he added.
Watts said Stearns is currently completing work toward a master’s degree in public accounting and is pursuing a career in that field in Vermont.
John Flowers is at [email protected].
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