BMS principal found guilty of retaliation
By MIKE RUSSO
May 14, 2009
The jury did not find Brown guilty of sexual harassment or the alleged comments. It based the award to the former employee, Cheryl Farb, on what it described as intentional infliction of emotional distress by the principal. The jury ruled on May 7 that Brown had retaliated against Farb after she filed complaints against him, which ultimately led to her termination. Farb, 49, was hired as the middle school's first-ever dean of students in the summer of 2002 and, according to her attorney, Rick Ostrove, received two excellent reviews from Brown, to whom she directly reported. Soon after Farb's second review, Ostrove explained, Brown made a number of racially and often sexually charged comments, according to Farb. In October of 2003, Farb submitted a complaint to the district office. When Brown found out about the complaint, Ostrove explained, he launched "a campaign to besmirch" Farb. Ostrove said that Brown harassed her at work, making her life miserable. During one administrators meeting, Ostrove said, Brown and another administrator bet to see who could make Farb cry first, and then laughed hysterically when she did. "The principal went after her hard; he tortured her," said Ostrove. "These are the people who are in charge of our children. These are the people we've entrusted the care of our kids to, and this is what they're doing with their time." An emotional Farb told a small gathering of reporters at Ostrove's law office on May 8 that losing her job was one of the most difficult experiences of her life. She said she felt scared and lost, and suffered depression and anxiety so severe that she moved to Arizona, where she had attended college, to find a new job. Farb said she was upset that Brown is still the principal, but most of all, she said, she misses the children and the parents with whom she had formed close bonds. "Everything I did in that school ... everything I said," Farb said, fighting back tears, "every part of my being was for those children, and I never got to say goodbye."
The jury also awarded $250,000 to Farb's husband, Harold Newman, citing a loss of consortium, which, Ostrove explained, can be awarded to a person whose spouse's emotional distress affects his or her ability to be an effective spouse. Ostrove said that the $5 million - $4 million of which will be charged to the district and $1 million is punitive damages against Brown - was only for emotional damages she suffered, and he intends to push for financial damages Farb claims after she was fired. Louis Silverman, an attorney representing the school district, said that the school board had investigated Farb's claims against Brown, and that in 2004, former Superintendent Dr. Kathy Weiss released a report stating that Farb's claims were unsubstantiated. Silverman added that he intends to fight for a reduction in the settlement. "What the jury was saying was there was no sexual harassment, there was no racial discrimination and there was no hostile work environment," Silverman said. "We are in the process of making a motion to set aside the verdict on a number of grounds." Baldwin Board of Education Vice President B.A. Schoen said that he could not discuss the matter in detail due to the ongoing litigation, but added that the board would likely take a look at the case in the near future. "The board hasn't gotten anything in writing about [the case] yet," Schoen said. "Any legal matters we discuss in executive session, and I'm sure we'll discuss this." Calls to Brown at the middle school were transferred to the district office, which released the following statement: "While the Baldwin Board of Education and Administration are taking this situation very
seriously, we ask you not allow some of the misinformation by the media to undermine your confidence in the district's leadership. When the district is convinced that allegations against the district or its employees are without merit, we mount a strong defense, and we are still in the
midst of just such a defense, which is why we have not been able to comment on this case.
"However, we must make clear that Principal James Brown was not found responsible for any sexual, gender, or race harassment of any kind. ... This case is not final, and the litigation is ongoing.
"Because one of the most significant responsibilities of the school board is to protect the
assets of the district, we retain independent council and are covered by insurance against these types of claims."
Cristina Schmohl, a district spokeswoman, said that because the district has insurance, any
money paid to Farb would not come out of the district budget.
Residents expressed differing views on the case. Guen Pieters, whose son attends Baldwin
Middle School, said she found Brown to be a very caring and proactive administrator. Pieters admitted that she had a perception of the school district as somewhat racially divided, but Brown had convinced her that wasn't the case.
She added that she believed the allegations were made because people had a problem with
Brown's race, and that some school officials felt they had been passed over when Brown became principal. "The issue here was not sexual harassment," said Pieters. "I think it was, 'How did this black man get this position?' But everybody loves him now. Everyone knows who he is and what kind of person he is. He's doing a great job for all the children."
But Nancy Gulfoyle, another parent, said she believes Brown is guilty of all the charges.
Gulfoyle said that Brown should have been fired six years ago when the allegations against
Brown first came up, and she is disappointed that he remains there today.
"I go around the neighborhood and all the people are saying how bad our schools are,"
Gulfoyle said. "I don't believe that. I graduated in 1979 and I still believe in our school system. But the parents have to step up and attend the meetings so we can change things."
Future hearings in the case have not yet been scheduled.
Comments about this story? MRusso@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 283.
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- Principals and school administrators hold positions of trust and responsibility in
our society. Last Wednesday, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of
New York found that Principal James Brown of Baldwin Middle School in
Baldwin, N.Y., violated that trust when he terminated Cheryl Farb, Dean of
Students, in retaliation for her filing a complaint for sexual harassment and
discrimination. Farb was represented by the firm Leeds Morelli & Brown.
Farb, et al. v. Baldwin Union Free School Dist., et al., 05 CV 0596 (JS)(ETB)
The jury found that the School District and Principal Brown retaliated against Farb for filing a harassment complaint against Brown. Following an eight-day trial, jurors awarded a total of $5.25 million to Cheryl Farb and her husband. The award included $4 million in emotional damages and $1 million in punitive damages awarded to Ms. Farb, as well as $250,000 for loss of consortium to Farb's husband. The Court has yet to determine Farb's damages for economic losses and is expected to award a substantial additional amount for those losses. The Court also ordered the School District to pay all of Farb's attorneys fees. Leeds Morelli managing attorney Jeffrey Brown stated, 'We are very proud of our trial team and inspired by the courage Ms. Farb demonstrated by standing up for the rights of children and women throughout the country.' Cheryl Farb worked at the Baldwin Middle School during the 2002/03 and 2003/04 school years until she was terminated. During her time at the school, she filed a complaint against the principal for making sexual and racial comments about both her and students at the school. The jury found that Principal Brown, in retaliation, exploited his position as Farb's direct supervisor by issuing her poor evaluations and fabricating reasons to take disciplinary action against her.
The jury also found that Baldwin School District failed to properly train its employees about sexual harassment; failed to keep Farb's complaint confidential; and failed to oversee Principal Brown's supervision of Farb after she filed her complaint against him. Cheryl Farb stated, 'I am happy with the outcome of the trial and am glad that the jury was able to see that I was wronged. I hope this verdict sends a message that people should speak out when they see improprieties in their workplace and retaliation for speaking out will not be tolerated.' Speaking on the quality of their legal counsel in the case, Farb's husband, Harry Newman, said, 'As an attorney, I am thrilled and amazed at the quality of the work that Leeds Morelli & Brown has done for us. Our attorney, Rick Ostrove, is one of the finest trial attorneys I have ever seen in my life. His closing statement was definitely the best closing statement I have ever seen in my entire career.'
"I think that this is reasonable solely on the issue of the amount of damages," said Rick Ostrove, an attorney representing Cheryl Farb, the former dean of students at the middle school, who was terminated in 2004 after she filed harassment complaints against Brown. But Ostrove defended the judge's decision to deny a new trial to challenge the guilty verdicts. "I think there was an overwhelming amount of evidence that [Farb] was retaliated against," he said, "and that Brown subjected her to infliction of emotional distress."
Last May, a federal jury found Brown guilty of intentional infliction of emotional distress, concluding that he made a series of inappropriate comments and created a hostile working environment for Farb, the middle school's first-ever dean of students. The jury determined that when Farb filed complaints with the Baldwin District Office beginning in December 2003, Brown's behavior continued.
Farb was terminated the following spring after the Board of Education found her claims to be "unsubstantiated," but the jury disagreed, finding the district guilty of retaliation. Farb was awarded a settlement of $4 million in emotional damages against the district and $1 million in punitive damages against Brown. Farb's husband, Harold, was awarded $250,000 for loss of consortium.
Harold Farb's award would not be at issue in a new trial, but a statute known as Title VII caps awards for compensatory damages — in this case, the district's retaliation — at $300,000. But because the judge ruled that Cheryl Farb's emotional distress could be attributed to both the district's retaliation and Brown's actions, Farb is entitled to $300,000 from each of them.
Once the new trial is finished, Ostrove explained, Farb will also be compensated for financial damages — the result of the loss of her job, health benefits and pension as well as her medical treatment — and he suggested that the district take that into account as legal costs mount during the trial. Ostrove estimated those costs to be about $1.7 million at this point.
"[The district] should have settled this before it went to trial and before the judge's decision," he said. "I'm hoping that it's smart enough to settle it now."
Mary Jo O'Hagan, president of the Baldwin Board of Education, said, "Because the litigation is an ongoing process, we continue to be unable to comment on this case."
An attorney for the school district could not be reached.
Three To Sue District