2010-08-18 / Front Page

Discrimination claim heads to court

By Jim McConnell

Marlow Marlow Despite the dismissal of her age-discrimination lawsuit against Superintendent Marcus Newsome, former Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) employee Debra Marlow still looks forward to having her suit against the school board heard by a jury of her peers on Nov. 16.

So says her attorney, Craig Curwood, who maintains that Newsome’s removal from the case as a separate defendant “has no bearing” on Marlow’s attempt to seek legal relief for what she claims is a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

“It was a technical legal issue that I chose to name [Newsome] individually,” Curwood said. “The judge cleared it up and said that because Newsome can’t be held individually liable, it didn’t make sense to have him included in the lawsuit. But if Newsome is found to have committed age discrimination, the school board ultimately will be liable.”

Marlow’s suit, which was filed in January at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleges that in 2008 Newsome “willfully, recklessly and intentionally” discriminated against Marlow by removing her from her position as director of community relations (DCR) with the specific intent of hiring her younger assistant, Tim Bullis.

Marlow initially opposed Newsome’s plan to transfer her to the position of director of business and government relations (DBGR), asking Newsome to eliminate the DBGR position and add its duties to her job description as DCR. Newsome rejected the request, and Marlow assumed the DBGR post in July 2008.

Bullis, who is more than 20 years Marlow’s junior, was subsequently promoted to DCR, a position he still holds today.

In January 2009, according to the suit, Newsome notified Marlow that the DBGR position would be eliminated as part of a reduction in force to address cuts in the school division’s budget. He then offered Marlow a job as administrator of the Communities in Schools (CIS) program, which paid approximately $15,000 less than she earned as DCR.

Again, Marlow resisted Newsome’s initial overture. She suggested that after 21 years as DCR, she was more experienced and qualified for the job than Bullis, whom she recommended to be demoted back to his former assistant DCR post.

Instead, Marlow claims that Newsome told her, “I am not having two directors, and I want 21st-century communication skills, and Tim [Bullis] is better at that.”

Newsome’s statement seemingly is the crux of Marlow’s lawsuit. She claims the reference to “21st-century communication skills” is a “thinly veiled euphemism” for preferring to have a younger person in the DCR position, and references her consistently positive performance appraisals as proof that there was no justification for replacing her as DCR.

This is where the waters get murky, however.

In their answer to Marlow’s complaint, attorneys for the school board admitted that Newsome did express both a desire not to have two employees in the same position and his belief that Bullis possessed “better skills than Marlow.”

At the same time, they denied Marlow’s assertion that Newsome’s statement suggested a preference toward Bullis because of his youth.

“We stand by the allegations in the complaint,” said Curwood, while noting that he’s “not at liberty to talk about the evidence” because the case is still pending.

Marlow, who is seeking unspecified damages, claims that Newsome’s unlawful actions left her no choice but to retire five years earlier than planned – in order to avoid the negative impact on her future retirement benefits that would’ve resulted from her acceptance of the CIS position.

Michael Chernau, a senior assistant county attorney who is representing the school board, did not return calls from the Chesterfield Observer seeking comment on the case.

But it is clear from its court filing that the defense believes Marlow bears sole responsibility for any financial repercussions that resulted from her decision to retire from CCPS.

“While we are unable to comment on pending litigation,” said CCPS spokesman Shawn Smith, “we have every expectation that this complaint will be determined not to have merit.”

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