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South Washington County Schools settles ex-employee's claim for $50,000

South Washington County Schools in November settled a civil lawsuit brought against the district. School Board members said the settlement was the best financial decision based on the potential costs associated with going to trial.

South Washington County Schools has agreed to a $50,000 settlement in an employment lawsuit, but school board members said it should not be viewed as precedent.

The settlement agreement last week in a lawsuit filed by a fired Woodbury High School staffer came about two months after the district agreed to a $17,500 settlement in a civil case by a student who claimed he suffered injuries in a fall at Cottage Grove Middle School. And earlier this year, the district agreed to a $75,000 settlement in a racial discrimination case brought by a former employee.

Board members unanimously approved the latest settlement following a closed session Thursday, Nov. 16. Trevor Helmers, an attorney for the district, said the agreement states the district was not admitting wrongdoing and is denying all liability. It's made in compromise of disputed claims, he said.

Under a cost-benefit analysis, he said, the settlement amount is less than what the district would spend by going to trial, even if it won.

"Your responsibility is to the taxpayers and to be conservative and fiscally sound with taxpayer funds," Helmers said. "This is one of those situations that as unfortunate as it might seem, this would be the best action to take."

School officials have said no public funds were used to pay the settlements. They have been paid through the district's insurance.

"We're making this decision right now based on mostly a business decision and financial decision, but it's not how we'd like to see things," board Chairwoman Katy McElwee-Stevens said.

The latest lawsuit was filed by Lori Schaaf, who had worked for the district full time since 2008. Schaaf described herself as a receptionist and greeter at Woodbury High School, while the district said she was a hall monitor. Schaaf claimed in her lawsuit that she suffered from chronic, debilitating knee pain that limited her ability to walk or stand for extended periods of time. Schaaf said her duties were changed in fall 2015 to include parking lot monitor duty. Schaaf later took a medical leave. In March 2016, she was terminated from her position.

The district disputed Schaaf's allegations of how administrators and human resources handled Schaaf's situation. The district said it worked with Schaaf in spring 2016 to try to determine whether reasonable accommodations could be found that would allow her to return to work after her leave. No reasonable accommodations were identified, so the district terminated her "due to her inability to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation," according to a court filing by the district.

Schaaf sued in Washington County District Court in December 2016. They were in mediation with a possible trial looming.

"It makes sense at this point to simply cut the losses at this point realizing that it would cost more than this to go to trial on these disputed claims," Helmers said.

Board member Katie Schwartz said she would support the settlement because it's in the district's best financial interest.

However, Schwartz added: "I'm not in full agreement of continuing to settle these cases."

It was the third settlement this year.

A racial discrimination case filed by a former school psychologist at Middleton Elementary School was settled in March.

Then, in September, board members approved the $17,500 settlement for a former student who alleged he slipped on a wet floor in a Cottage Grove Middle School locker room in April 2010, causing head, facial and dental injuries. The lawsuit alleged the district was negligent, while the district disputed the claims and alleged the claims could be barred by statute of limitations. The case was filed in March 2016.

Prior to voting on the latest settlement, board member Ron Kath said they don't want to set a precedent, and the district will fight lawsuits. Kath blamed the legal system and told the public to think about tort reform with lawmakers.

"Unfortunately I think we're making a wise decision from a financial standpoint, but certainly (we) don't want to set a precedence that that's the way it's going to be business as usual at South Washington County," he said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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