A Secaucus Middle School math teacher that was a New Jersey Milken National Educator Award recipient in 2017 is suing the board of education and the former superintendent for discrimination and retaliation.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
According to the 10-page, four-count lawsuit filed in Hudson County Superior Court on Friday, Toni-Anne Palmisano notified the BOE via a January 7th, 2021 medical note that she was requesting a six-week medical leave, with an anticipated February 22nd return date.
“On January 8, 2021, at Superintendent Jennifer Montesano’s request, a meeting was held between Superintendent Montesano, Plaintiff and her union representatives to discuss
Plaintiff’s request to take a leave,” the lawsuit contends.
“During this meeting, Superintendent Montesano repeatedly requested that Plaintiff allow her doctor to release medical information directly to her … Superintendent Montesano discouraged Plaintiff from taking FMLA leave, warning Plaintiff that if she took FMLA, she would be putting money out of her own pocket for insurance and that, ‘Your job is secure, don’t worry about that issue.'”
Through her attorney Michael A. D’Aquanni, Palmisano further alleges that she was never told she had to be evaluated by a board doctor prior to returning to work. To that end, she also indicates that multiple requests for FMLA paperwork were ignored by the board.
After submitting a Medical Clearance Certification and request for FMLA Intermittent Leave to their human resources department, Montesano allegedly told her union representative that she didn’t follow the rules.
” … Plaintiff ‘never released us to speak with her doctor’s office. Either she needs to do this immediately or she will have to be evaluated by our doctor to return to work.’ Plaintiff received no response from the Board as to her FMLA leave request,” the court filing says.
“Instead, on February 16, 2021, Superintendent Montesano emailed Plaintiff stating that ‘until we have that permission and speak with your doctor or you are evaluated by a doctor of our choice, I can not grant you a return to work.’”
On February 18th, 2021, Montesano is accused of telling Palmisano that she would have to be evaluated by a board psychologist by 3 p.m. that day in order to decide if her leave would be granted.
Then, on March 10th, Palmisano submitted the same type of forms as she did the month prior, resulting in the superintendent again telling her they would need to conduct a psychiatric evaluation in order to consider granting the leave, court documents allege.
By April 7th, the BOE was demanding that Palmisano submit to an evaluation, and if she did not, the superintendent would recommend that the board order the evaluation at their next meeting, the lawsuit asserts.
Finally, by April 19th, Palmisano agreed to have a BOE representative other than her direct supervisor or the superintendent to contact her health provider “for purposes of clarification and authentication of the medical certification” only, which she signed off on the next day.
According to the suit, Palmisano did not get authorization to return to work until May 24th, and a short time later, the board did not reappoint her as the Middle School Building Mentoring Coordinator, despite holding the post for four years.
Retaliation as recent as last month is also alleged, noting that Palmisano claiming she was unable to receive classroom coverage to set up, as well as clean up after, the prom, which was denied without explanation, as was her request to be transferred from the middle school to the high school.
The lawsuit says the conduct of BOE, Montesano, as well as John and Jane Does 1 through 10, violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, also claiming she was retaliated against for requesting protected leave under the FMLA.
As a result, she is seeking compensatory damages, non-economic compensatory damages, punitive damages, interest, cost of suit, attorneys’ fees, enhanced attorneys’ fees, equitable back pay, equitable front pay, equitable reinstatement and any other relief the court deems equitable and just.
Montesano was ousted at a special BOE meeting on September 8th, where Daniela Riser, then the district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, was named acting superintendent.
Recognizing Palmisano’s Milken award in 2017, Montesano praised her work in the district.
“Ms. Palmisano is also a mentor to new teachers and has been credited for amending the current curriculum for the mathematics department … It’s an honor to be part of sharing such an award with a true educational leader,” she said at the time.
Secaucus BOE officials did not return inquiries seeking comment on Wednesday.