A physical therapist's assistant who formerly worked for Jefferson City Public Schools alleges in a new lawsuit against the school district that she had to resign after "relentless criticism, discrimination and retaliation by JCPS" on the basis of her disability, a physical health condition.
Denise Rackers' lawsuit filed against JCPS in Cole County Circuit Court on Jan. 17 is the fifth active suit against the school district, and the fourth of the five based on some kind of alleged employment discrimination.
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Rackers said in her petition for damages that she worked for JCPS from January 1997 until May 2018.
She said she began to experience physical symptoms related to balance, blood pressure and syncope, or fainting, in December 2016.
Rackers said she was diagnosed with dysautonomia, which is a neurological disorder, in April 2017. Following her diagnosis, Rackers said she requested and received intermittent FMLA leave.
The Family and Medical Leave Act is a federal law that "provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It also requires that their group health benefits be maintained during the leave," according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Rackers said she told her supervisor — Lynda Weaver, a physical therapist — about her diagnosis, and alleged Weaver disclosed her diagnosis to faculty and staff of the school district without Rackers' permission.
Weaver is listed as being a physical therapist working for JCPS at Lawson Elementary School. Rackers' petition does not say where within JCPS that she and Weaver worked at the time of the allegations.
Rackers also alleged Weaver mocked her for taking leave for her condition. On one alleged occasion in August 2017, Rackers said Weaver told her she hoped Rackers would "'grace (JCPS) with her presence more.'"
On another alleged occasion later that same month, Rackers said Weaver asked her if she had enjoyed her "'shopping trip'" and stated her "disbelief in Rackers' need to miss work."
After Rackers missed work Oct. 2-6, 2017, she said Weaver told her she could not continue to be absent and she would need to change her work schedule, "which would result in a loss of pay and benefits."
Later that month, Rackers said Weaver told her she could "'measure (Rackers') blood pressure by the quality of (her) therapy notes.'"
Rackers said she was called to the district's central office in December 2017 to meet with Bridget Frank, JCPS director of special services. Frank allegedly told her Rackers' colleagues had complained about her job performance.
Frank had been unaware until that meeting that Rackers had been diagnosed with dysautonomia and had been approved for FMLA leave, Rackers said.
Rackers requested a follow-up meeting and said she planned to request for accommodations for her to perform the essential functions of her job, given her diagnosis.
She said the accommodations she would have made would have included "additional time to move about the school between appointments," "occasional breaks to rest" and "permission to use the elevator in the school."
However, she said neither Frank nor JCPS Director of Human Resources Shelby Scarbrough wanted to discuss those accommodations at a meeting in January 2018, and instead, they allegedly asked Rackers if she "'needed her job.'"
Rackers said they discussed a number of job performance concerns with her, including her absences, which she said in her petition had been covered by FMLA leave, sick leave or vacation.
Frank and Scarbrough allegedly discussed their concerns about unreported absences Rackers allegedly took, and "alleged inaccuracies and untimeliness in therapy logs" and "grievances regarding services provided by Rackers." Rackers said she had not been aware of those concerns before the meeting.
"Rackers was subsequently told that she needed to notify Frank and Weaver of any partial day absences; to sign in and out each time she entered or exited the building; to sign students in and out of their classrooms prior and subsequent to each therapy session; and that she must complete all progress reports within 24 hours. The aforementioned were not requirements prior to the January (2018) meeting, nor were they required of other employees," according to Rackers' petition.
Rackers said she filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights on May 16, 2018, and "was constructively discharged" from JCPS on May 17.
A date for when she received her right to sue notice from the Human Rights Commission is not included in her petition, but Rackers said the petition was filed within 90 days of receiving her right to sue notice.
Rackers is asking for a jury to award her "compensatory damages, punitive damages, reasonable attorneys' fees and costs, pre- and post-judgment interests and such other relief as the court deems just" on each of three counts: "discrimination on the basis of disability;" "retaliation;" and "hostile work environment on the basis of disability."
Rackers said she suffered loss of income; "loss of health insurance coverage and/or cost for COBRA coverage;" loss of employment benefits such as life and disability insurance coverage; and "emotional distress and reputational damage." Her petition also includes "future lost wages and earnings" in her suffered damages.
COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which is a federal health insurance law that "gives workers and their families who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances such as voluntary or involuntary job loss (and) reduction in the hours worked," according to the Department of Labor.
According to a statement from JCPS, "Our district's top priority is to protect the learning environment of our students. We intend to aggressively defend this case and look forward to presenting our side during the legal process."
Rackers' lawsuit was filed last week, the day after a math teacher at Simonsen 9th Grade Center, Naveed Malik, filed an employment discrimination case against JCPS on the basis of alleged discrimination based on his race, national origin, color and age, as well as through retaliation and a hostile work environment. As of Tuesday afternoon, there had not been any hearings scheduled in Malik's or Rackers' cases.
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Rackers' attorney is listed in court records as John Andrew Hirth, of TGH Litigation, LLC in Columbia. The News Tribune left a message with TGH for Hirth to offer comment, but did not receive a response from him before publication.
In addition to Rackers' and Malik's separate lawsuits, JCPS also faces an employment discrimination suit from Tammy Ferry based on alleged retaliation and gender discrimination. Ferry's suit is scheduled for trial in Cole County court at the end of February.
Robert Jones, a Jefferson City High School teacher, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for Western Missouri in March 2018, and alleges JCPS discriminated against him by paying him a lower wage than his female counterpart teachers. That case currently is set for trial in May in Jefferson City.
A second case in the same federal court and the fifth active suit against JCPS alleges negligence at Jefferson City High School allowed a man to excuse a girl from school for sex with him on several occasions, to which he later pleaded guilty to statutory rape and sodomy. That case is scheduled for trial in September in Jefferson City.
JCPS is being represented in those three cases by Schreimann, Rackers & Francka, LLC of Jefferson City, though no legal representation was yet listed on Tuesday for the district in Rackers' and Malik's lawsuits.