The lawyer for Leslie Berman, the principal of L.J. Hauser Junior High School, is negotiating with Riverside Elementary School District on a severance package for Berman, who suddenly and unexpectedly packed up her office and left her job on Jan. 9.
If the negotiations don’t produce an agreement, Berman’s lawyer, Steven Glink, has threatened to file an age discrimination complaint against District 96 and Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis.
“We’re trying to resolve the employment issues, that’s what I would say,” Glink told the Landmark.
Glink was asked whether he would file an age discrimination lawsuit on behalf of Berman, who is 60 years old and has been the principal at Hauser since 2006.
“It’s a thought. It sort of depends on the [school] board, but it’s a possibility,” Glink replied.
Glink, an experienced and respected education attorney, also revealed that he is also representing former District 96 Technology Director Vern Bettis and Blythe Park School Principal Bob Chleboun. Bettis suddenly resigned and left his position for another job on Jan. 15, while Chleboun recently submitted a letter of resignation effective at the end of the school year.
Last fall, Glink represented Mary Polk, who was the director of special education at District 96 until she was forced out. Polk was put on administrative leave in September, and Glink negotiated a severance agreement that paid Polk her salary through Dec. 31, 2013. Polk officially resigned in early December.
Glink, who appealed and won a residency case against Riverside-Brookfield High School in 2009, said that he believes the Bettis and Chleboun could also have age discrimination claims.
“The other two, it just sort of depends on what happens in the future,” Glink said. “I’ll say this: I think I have grounds for it, but famous last words from every lawyer.”
Before an age discrimination lawsuit can be brought, a complaint typically must be filed with either the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Illinois Department of Human Rights. Typically those agencies have a year to review and attempt to resolve an age discrimination complaint before a lawsuit can be filed, Glink said.
Glink acknowledged that he has given the district’s lawyers a list of demands on behalf of Berman.
“I’ve communicated it to them,” Glink said.
Ever since Berman left Hauser Jan. 9, all of her communication with the district has been through Glink.
While Berman’s attorney has given the school board a list of demands, the school board reportedly is in no mood to accede to them. The board reportedly is willing to offer Berman a modest period of paid administrative leave in return for her resignation.
If Berman does not accept that offer, the school board could order her to come back to work. If she does not return to work, the district could argue that Berman has abandoned her job and, thus, has lost all rights to it.
It apparently was Berman’s decision to clean out her office and stop coming to work. Sharma-Lewis told the Landmark that she did not tell Berman to stop coming to work. Berman’s abrupt decision to quit coming to work seems to have surprised everyone, even Glink.
“I did not advise her to do that,” Glink said.
Glink knows that in any lawsuit he would have to face the job abandonment issue. But he says that Berman was forced out and that she was made miserable this year.
“Some people call it job abandonment, some people would call it constructive discharge or coerced resignation,” Glink said. “That’s what I’d call it, I mean if it gets down to that.”
The district could also contest any claim for unemployment insurance that Berman may make, arguing that she has voluntarily left her job. Berman has not submitted a letter of resignation, Glink said.
Glink said that he doesn’t know what prompted Berman to pack up and leave on Jan. 9 but said that things have been difficult for Berman for some time because of Sharma-Lewis.
“At some point I’d say it reached the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” Glink said. “I don’t know a specific trigger. All I can say is that I don’t think she has been happy there.”
Glink said that the fact that Berman cleaned out her office the same day as Chleboun told his staff that he was resigning could be just a coincidence.
“Each person had his or her reason as to why they wanted to do it that day,” Glink said. “I think it was more of a coincidence than a premeditated thing.”
Relations between Berman and Sharma-Lewis have been strained since the start of Sharma-Lewis’ tenure last summer.Berman rarely attended meetings of the district leadership team this year, though she did reportedly attend such a meeting the day before cleaning out her office.
Glink said that it is important for the school board to hear all the facts about what has been going on this year and take an independent look at what has happened with the departures since Sharma-Lewis took over.
“The board’s information comes directly and only from the superintendent, and I don’t know what she’s told them and what she hasn’t told them,” Glink said. “A lot of times I have different or more information than the board is aware of. I just want them to have all the information when they make a decision on any of these people.”
Glink said that he is hopeful he can reach a deal with the district and avoid a lawsuit.
“I feel like I’m a very reasonable person,” Glink said. “I think if you ask any school board lawyer that knows me they’ll tell you that, but I think they’ll also tell you that I know what I’m doing.”