Former Eastmont Employee Won Most of Her Claims– Posted by Rachel Schleif, World Staff Writer, in Wenatchee World
WATERVILLE—A 12-person jury sided with a former Eastmont employee in Douglas County Superior Court Friday on most of her claims against the school district.
The jury awarded Patricia Valdez-Zontek $185,000 in damages plus attorney fees, which her attorney estimated were “in excess of $200,000,” for disparate treatment, intentional and neglectful emotional distress, defamation, retaliation and constructive discharge.
The jury did not agree with Valdez-Zontek that the school district committed an invasion of privacy and that the district’s actions were outrageous.
“I think the jury did a great job in sorting out all the legal issues involved,” said Robin Phillips, her attorney. “I know my client is hopeful that this will send a message to the district in terms of how to treat their employees.”
The school district’s budget and current staffing will not be affected by the award, said Assistant Superintendent Beverly Jagla. An Ephrata insurance company, Canfield and Associates, will cover damages.
“The circumstances which led to the lawsuit happened between six and eight years ago,” Jagla said. “Most key players back then have either retired or changed position.”
Valdez-Zontek, the special programs director from 1999 to 2002, says she was forced to resign by school administrators who unfairly targeted her and spread a false rumor that she was having an affair with former superintendent Joel Thaut.
She filed suit against the district in 2003.
Jerry Moberg, attorney for the school district, said it was right to investigate Valdez-Zontek six years ago when officials suspected that Thaut favored Valdez-Zontek, and their “unique relationship” compromised his ethics as her supervisor.
“I’m very troubled by the jury’s verdict, but I respect it,” Moberg said. “The school district faced a situation where an employee was clearly trying to get paid for time she was on vacation. The school did the only thing it could have done. ... For them to be penalized for taking that action is very troublesome for me.”
The school district accused Valdez-Zontek of inappropriately reporting extra hours on her summer time sheets in 2000 and 2001. Thaut approved payment, although other Eastmont administrators disagreed.
The school district called for a state audit of her time sheets and sent two board members to investigate a rumor of an affair.
“The jury’s verdict reflected more on Joel Thaut’s behavior than the school district, but since he was superintendent that was a problem,” said Moberg, who talked with jurors after the trial.
School administrators have not decided whether to appeal, Moberg said. There are no regrets about not settling the case before trial, he said.
“I don’t think the school district had any reason to settle,” Moberg said. “They did the right thing. What’s a school district supposed to do if it suspects an employee is taking improper pay, turn a blind eye?”