Unit 4 settles former worker's lawsuit for $75,000
CHAMPAIGN — Just before winter break, the Champaign school board approved a $75,000 settlement agreement with a former employee who filed a federal lawsuit against the district claiming discrimination and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Scott Christenson had been an employee with Unit 4 for 18 years, working in the transportation department as a bus driver and, at the time of his termination, as a teacher aide and hall monitor at Central High School.
The school board formally approved his firing in March, after months of disciplinary meetings between Christenson and the human-resources department over excessive absences.
During his tenure at Central — nearly three years — Christenson missed a total of 155 days of work, according to district documents.
Christenson was given the job as a hall monitor and teacher aide at Central in 2013, after the district determined he was unfit to work as a bus driver upon his return from a two-month leave of absence for a medical condition, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Urbana in March 2014.
The complaint states Christenson suffers from a disability called Addison's disease, a rare but treatable condition that occurs when the body produces insufficient amounts of certain hormones. It did not prohibit him from driving a bus. While employed by Unit 4, he also underwent a total knee replacement and back surgery and had other health issues.
Despite being medically cleared by his physician when he returned to work in February 2013, Unit 4 subjected Christenson to an independent medical examination, which determined he was "fully and permanently disabled" for his purpose of being a bus driver.
"The (independent) physician did not point to any one specific medical condition which caused the plaintiff to be unfit for duty, however ambiguously determined the 'totality' of the plaintiff's medical conditions caused him to be unfit to drive a bus for the district," the lawsuit stated.
The complaint also alleged the school district engaged in "hostile and discriminatory" conduct toward Christenson throughout the course of his employment with Unit 4. The suit, filed by Urbana attorney Ronald Langacker, asked that Christenson be given back his job as a bus driver, that the district declare its fault, and that Christenson be awarded damages to compensate for the "economic loss" suffered as a result of the job change, as well as funds for his attorney fees.
Despite the pending lawsuit, Christenson remained a Unit 4 employee for two more years. In March 2015, he received a "last chance" warning from Ken Kleber, Unit 4's director of human resources, which outlined a variety of issues with Christenson's "excessive" absences. He was disciplined for taking time off work beyond his accrued leave days and lacking proper documentation related to his hospitalization in another state that kept him away from work for weeks, according to letters obtained from Unit 4.
In the March 2015 memo, Kleber asked Christenson to arrive on time and remain at work for all of his scheduled shifts, not be absent unless he was using accrued leave time, give proper documentation to the district if he misses work for medical reasons and conduct himself in "a cooperative and non-argumentative manner" during interactions with district employees.
Then, in December 2015, Christenson received another memo from Kleber that outlined his work absences over the past three school years and recommended his termination. The memo cited 61 days missed in 2013-14, 59 days in 2014-15 and 35 days by the time of the December meeting in the 2015-16 school year, including a leave of absence that lasted for "almost the entire month of November," Kleber wrote.
The letter notified Christenson that he had been placed on paid administrative leave while the termination process proceeded.
"Since you have been an employee at Central High School, we have been very understanding and accommodating of your absences," Kleber wrote. "We need a regular employee, not a substitute, in order to provide a safe, supportive and educationally appropriate environment in our school. It is simply too burdensome on the building and other employees when you are not here."
Later that month, Christenson appealed the firing, calling the action "unfounded" and saying the district's actions are "against the letter of the collective bargaining agreement and are being done (as) an act of discrimination toward me," according to a letter he sent to human resources.
In January 2016, Christenson was informed that Unit 4's administration would uphold the recommendation for termination. In response, he requested a formal hearing before the board of education, according to district documents.
A hearing was set for Feb. 22, which Christenson could not attend because he was in the hospital.
On March 14, the board formally voted in favor of firing Christenson. Nine days later, the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union filed a demand to arbitrate the case.
In June 2016, the district court in Urbana dismissed Christenson's lawsuit, which he appealed a month later. Christenson also filed charges with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and a notice of right to sue was issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November.
At its Dec. 19 meeting, the school board approved the settlement agreement between Christenson, the CESP union and the district, awarding $50,000 to Christenson and $25,000 to his attorney. As part of the agreement, Christenson cannot sue the district, seek re-employment with Unit 4 or talk about the case. Neither Langacker nor Christenson would comment on the settlement.
As part of the agreement, Unit 4 admits no fault. Its insurance provider, Massachusetts Bay Insurance, will cover $40,000 of the settlement, with the remainder coming out of the district's tort fund, according to Tom Lockman, Unit 4's chief financial and legal officer.
Lockman and district spokesperson Stephanie Stuart would not comment on the settlement, which Stuart said concludes a case that has been ongoing for "about 10 years with this individual."
Said Lockman: "What the district focuses on is an effective use of resources in determining how to proceed in matters like this, and we believe we've done that here."