The Pine Bluff School Board voted unanimously in a special session Friday to allow the Bequette & Billingsley, P.A. Law Firm to settle a lawsuit with a former Pine Bluff High School teacher who alleged sexual harassment and sexual discrimination against a former PBHS principal.
Celeste Alexander, who was let go from the district in 2015 as part of a reduction in force effort, alleges that she was sexually harassed and discriminated against by then-PBHS Principal Michael Nellums, who has also filed a suit against the district in response to the allegations.
Alexander contends that when other teachers who received RIF letters were recalled to work at the district, she wasn't because of the allegations against Nellums.
The district will pay Alexander $50,000 and reinstate her position effective July 1.
Cody Kees, an attorney with Bequette & Billingsley, P.A. who represents the Pine Bluff School District, advised the board to settle the case with Alexander after the court refused to dismiss the case.
“The order came back Monday and it was very unfavorable,” Kees said, adding that the 20-page-long order rules that the school district has no legal defense to any of the claims, so all evidence would be presented at trial.
Kees told the board that “part of your policy states that anyone subject to the RIF has automatic recall rights, where they automatically get to come back to any position for which they are qualified.”
In 2015, previous Interim Superintendent T.C. Wallace, Jr. confirmed that the Pine Bluff School Board approved laying off 68 employees under the reduction in force policy. In a previous article, Wallace said the RIFs were essentially temporary lay-offs.
Kees said that Alexander has a math certification for grades 7-12.
“There almost would be undisputed testimony that we violated that policy, and there's still the issue of whether that was intentional or not,” Kees said. “We have our defenses, but we've round-tabled this case, we've had some focus groups on it, and we think at the very least, once we go through this week-long trial, Alexander would be entitled to some compensation simply because we didn't recall her, and she's been out of a position with the district for three years.”
Kees said that he received a proposal from Alexander's counsel stating that she should be given a job in the district.
“I don't see a problem with that because she is not on a 'do not hire' list and she has a Ph.D. in mathematics,” Kees said.
Alexander's proposal also requests one year's compensation, $50,000, and that the board would make a teacher retirement match of 14 percent to the Arkansas Teacher Retirement, which all teachers receive.
“We think that the settlement is really favorable because we know for certain what we would be paying,” Kees said. “The issue is attorney's fees for her attorneys. Under the law, with the claim she is bringing, she has an automatic right to receive attorney's fees if she prevails, and instead of us approving those, we had requested that the judge decide that issue.”
“We are greatly reducing our risks in paying one year's salary when she had recall rights up to two years,” he said, adding that the district would enter into a settlement agreement which says that Alexander releases any and all claims, and they would not admit liability.
“We're denying liability, but recognizing that when you go to court and sit in front of 12 jurors in today's atmosphere, people are very 'on edge' about sexual harassment claims and we could get a verdict against us,” Kees said.
He said that also in the settlement agreement, Alexander would be employed as of July 1, and she would receive the check for a year's compensation.
Kees said that Alexander should not have been in the RIF.
“I'm going to have to be honest and say that we messed up,” he said. “When the district put her in the RIF, you thereby gave her rights that she probably wasn't entitled to. She received a letter, which is in evidence and signed by the Director of Human Resources, stating that she has recall rights up to two years.”
He said that there is evidence proving that there were people who were recalled and asked to come back to the district after the RIF, but Alexander, it is alleged, was not one of them due to some complaints that she had made regarding her supervisor, which was Nellums at the time.
“I just need authority on your behalf to go ahead and finalize this case, so we can resolve this matter without the week-long trial subpoena, and all of our employees being involved, and move on,” Kees said.
Board member Miranda Williams, who attended by phone due to being out of town, asked when they would know how much they would be required to pay in attorney's fees for Alexander.
Kees said that the fees will be delayed because they (Alexander's attorneys) have to submit a petition to the judge, which includes an accounting of all the time they've spent.
“I will certainly scrutinize that and say this is unnecessary or this is too high, and the judge will read my response, and then we will get a number,” he said.
This process could take a minimum of 2-3 months.