Trial begins in Landon School wrongful termination case -- Gazette.Net


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Two starkly different tales played out in Montgomery County Circuit Court Tuesday in a civil case about alleged discrimination and wrongful termination brought against a Bethesda boys prep school by one of its former employees.

Timothy Harrison, who was the school’s chief finance and operations officer, has sued the Landon School, where he worked, saying he was fired because of allegations he made of discriminatory practices by two supervisors against other school laborers and staff.

The school filed a counterclaim accusing Harrison of breaching his employment contract, and persuading Landon to join a self-funded health insurance plan without disclosing a conflict of interest.

Lawyers representing the Landon School, portrayed a situation in court of an executive whose handling of the school’s finances led the school down a financial precipice, who was not devoting his full energies to the school — in breach of contract — and who did not notify school officials of a conflict of interest when he convinced the school to switch health insurance plans through a business to which he was connected.

That counterclaim then led Harrison to change his lawsuit to claim he was also the victim of post-employment retaliation, and that Landon filed its claim because he filed his initial complaint in the first place.

The two supervisors, one of whom still works at the school, would frequently use racial epithets to slur black and Latino employees, creating an environment which, for school officials, was “abusive but not intolerable,” said Adam Augustine Carter, Harrison’s attorney.

Carter said that Landon Headmaster David Armstrong did not allow Harrison to fire or discipline employees under his supervision adequately, and that many of the issues that the school gave as causes for firing Harrison, such as a financial crisis that emerged during his tenure, were problems the school faced before he was hired, were not under his control, or came from actions made over Harrison’s objections. Some of those issues included high raises to staff salaries, mismanagement, and a low attendance at the school’s annual summer camp, Carter said.

“All of the cash flow problems ... were occasioned by a management decisions and mismanagement by a headmaster who could not say no to staff wanting raises, who could not say no to parents not wanting to pay their debts, ... by underperformance by administrative staff and by a historic debt burden which long predated Mr. Harrison’s,” Carter said in court.

Carter said the termination led to his client suffering a $1.85 million loss in current and future earnings and that Harrison received just one job offer from 450 resumes sent out after leavnig Landon. Harrison is suing the school for $2 million.

But Tom McCally, an attorney representing the school, said the decision not to renew Harrison’s contract was a unanimous one made by the school’s executive committee, after Harrison notified the school it would need to borrow $4.7 million to pay its debts, $350,000 just to make payroll.

Harrison was not devoting his full energies to the school, McCally said, spending five to 10 hours a week at times using school resources for outside consulting contracts.

In his opening statement Tuesday, McCally said on Dec. 14, 2011, Harrison gave a presentation to the school’s executive committee telling them they would have to sell endowed land to pay back a debt. It was the first time since Harrison arrived at the school in 2010 that he had provided that information, McCally said, adding that Harrison had never produced financial statements to various school officials despite repeated requests.

Harrison did not send out emails about the alleged discrimination until three weeks after the Dec. 14 meeting, McCally said.

“It was the first time he had ever put anything in writing that he had received all these complaints,” McCally said, adding that Harrison had given both supervisors “glowing reviews” during their job evaluations.

The trial is expected to last ten days.

sjbsmith@gazette.net