The Washington State Court of Appeals decided yesterday that a 14 year teaching veteran deserves a trial in an Employment Discrimination case. At issue for the jury is whether the Seattle School District should have transferred her to a clean, mold free environment before terminating her.
Denise Frisino’s troubles with toxic mold began in 2000 when she acquired a respiratory illness in response to chemical toxins present at Hamilton International Middle School. The illness made her sensitive to a range of airborne toxins, from mold to other irritants. After attempts to clean up the toxic environment at the school failed, Frisino was forced to go on medical leave in April 2004 and agreed to be transferred to Nathan Hale High School the following school year.
According to court documents, the extent to which Seattle Public Schools has failed to address widespread mold and toxin problems became clear when Frisino entered her new classroom at Hale. She “immediately note[d] visible mold as well as blackened and missing ceiling tiles.” Frisino discussed her concerns with Hale Principal Lisa Hechtman. In September and October, a private firm, Clayton Group Services, as well as the Seattle/King Country Department of Health investigated and “reported no active mold growth in the building.” Although they reported “the total fungal structure concentrations inside the hale building were lower than those found outdoors,” the District still performed some minimal remediation on the classroom. On November 21, the issue came to a head when Frisino experienced a respiratory emergency in the classroom requiring a visit to the emergency room.
Michelle Esteban of KOMO News reported on November 29, 2004 on photos of mold that a Nathan Hale parent provided. Esteban notes, “Some of the ceiling tiles are peeled away and, underneath, a black mold.” The article also described Frisino’s reaction as “severe–everything from a hacking cough, swollen nose, ringing ears and now respiratory complications.”
Frisino was not the only person put in jeopardy by the continuing mold problem at Nathan Hale. Seattlepi.com reported on December 7, 2004 that Jennifer Aspelund pulled her son out of Nathan Hale because of the threat the mold posed. Her son, North Aspelund Jr., was “diagnosed with leukemia at age 4, relapsed four years later, then endured a bone marrow transplant and the removal of a cancerous kidney.” After detecting a an odd smell in the library, officials confirmed an “area above a northeast stairwell contain[ed] Stachybotrys atra, a greenish-black mold.” His mother noted they never would have enrolled North in Hale had they been aware of the mold problem.
Meanwhile, Frisino was earnestly negotiating with the District to accommodate her disability. According to court documents, the District hired Superior Colt to remove visible mold from Classroom 216. The remediation project was completed in December and the District demanded Frisino return to work on January 3, 2005. Thus began a flurry of communication between Frisino and the District, with the District claiming the environmental remediation was “appropriate” and Frisino’s doctors repeating she was “advised to remain away from her current workplace or be transferred to a more accommodating environment.” The District terminated Frisino on June 1, claiming she failed to return to work.
Frisino’s original lawsuit alleged the District failed to provide a reasonable accommodation as required by the Washington Law Against Discrimination, and engaged in employment discrimination and retaliatory discharge. The trial court dismissed her claim in favor of the District.
Yesterday Frisino’s claim was given new life by the Washington State Court of Appeals when she was granted a new trial. Among other irregularities, the court noted the District attempted to apply an “objective measure” to her illness and questioned whether the District reasonably accommodated Frisino. Most importantly, in the last month many of the key players working for the School Districthave been terminated for misuse of District funds and poor leadership after being swept up in the Seattle Public Schools Scandal.
Since the case was dismissed in 2009, Nathan Hale has been completely renovated.
The Appeals Court’s granting of a trial is an important victory for injured workers whose employers violate their rights by refusing to accommodate a disability or terminate in retaliation. There is a Washington L & I attorneyat Emery Reddy that has the expertise to protect your rights. Stay tuned as this case continues to unfold…