The Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center and its executive director Lanny Ross are suing former special education teacher Christine McNelis, one of two teachers who filed a federal lawsuit against the school and Ross in September claiming they were unjustly furloughed.
"There is no merit in the case against [McNelis]. It's an effort to intimidate her," said attorney Edward Olds, who is representing McNelis in both lawsuits.
The September complaint filed by Olds on behalf of McNelis and former GACTC teacher Wendy Koehle, seeks damages for the women's jobs lost over the last two years: McNelis's in the 2010-11 school year and Koehle's after the 2011-12 school year.
Their complaint filed in the U.S. District Court makes a case that McNelis was furloughed because Ross allegedly resented her since a 2001 civil rights lawsuit she filed against the school and Ross for alleged inaction and retaliation toward her after she reported a school employee had sexually harassed her.
Koehle, an English teacher, alleges her furlough this year resulted from her testimony during an arbitration hearing supporting McNelis as she sought to recover her job through her union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
School solicitor Dave Andrews filed the school's complaint this month, which claims statements made in the women's complaint breached a contract with the school and McNelis that was established in 2005 to settle the civil rights claim she had made against Ross and the school.
U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson had dismissed McNelis's claim of retaliation and allegations that Ross violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She had claimed that Ross retaliated against her because she reported that an employee sexually harassed her.
But to settle the case, the school had paid $52,000 to McNelis on the terms that McNelis would not disparage the school or Ross and say nothing about the case except that the "matter was settled and the defendants denied any liability."
McNelis and Koehle's lawsuit included statements making a case that Ross' actions toward McNelis at the time of her sexual harassment complaint, subsequent lawsuit and years since her settlement culminated in her furlough in 2011.
Statements that the school was engaged in wrongdoing, and that Ross began a "studied campaign of harassment and retaliation directed at McNelis which prompted her to file the action [in 2001]," breached her settlement agreement, Andrews said.
The agreement for the parties permits it to be used as evidence in the event that one party materially breaches it.
The complaint filed in the Blair County Court, seeks $52,000 from McNelis - the amount the school paid to her to settle her prior claim.
"They are suing her for going to court," Olds said. "There was no breach. The agreement states that it doesn't impair her First Amendment rights," he said.
Andrews believes there was a breach of the agreement.
"It's a breach of contract. The agreement was based on the premises that she would not to mention this thing and her acknowledgment that there was never any wrongdoing," Andrews said. "So she should repay."
No motions have been filed in response to either case.
Andrews said he will file a response to the federal case in about one week's time.
Olds has less than 20 days to file a response to the complaint filed by Andrews.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.