In a trial that was set to begin Tuesday, a former Nevada school district employee is suing the district and its administrators, saying they took away her rights when they fired her after she was arrested in 2014.
The school district fired Susan Sheeler, who was a classroom associate at Nevada High School, after she was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia in July 2014, according to Sheeler’s lawsuit. A judge dismissed the charge against her less than two months later, but she’d already been fired by the school district.
“The main allegation here, I think, really is that the school district was a little too fast to act on something that was, well, pretty serious for my client,” said Andrew Zbaracki, Sheeler’s attorney, in an interview with the Ames Tribune Friday.
Sheeler’s wrongful termination complaint, filed May 29, 2016, states the school district, including Superintendent Steve Gray, former high school principal Justin Gross and district Business Manager Brian Schaffer, who are named in the suit, denied her Fifth Amendment rights, discriminated against her because of her age and sex, and defamed her. She was 60 at the time.
During the trial, to be held at the Story County Courthouse in Nevada, Sheeler is seeking an amount of damages that would be determined by the judge.
In its response to Sheeler’s complaint, the district said that under Iowa law, Sheeler couldn’t sue for punitive damages because she didn’t “exhaust her administrative remedies” in the course of her firing, and because she was at fault for her dismissal.
When reached by phone on Friday, Gray said that he’d “love” to comment on the case but still declined to do so on the advice of his attorney.
Sheeler’s attorneys filed the lawsuit almost two years after the school district fired her. On July 22, 2014, Nevada police searched her home and found “glass smoking devices” and two bags of a “green leafy substance,” according to the criminal complaint. Police said Sheeler also admitted “several times” that she had marijuana in the house before officers arrived.
A judge dismissed the case on Sept. 12, 2014, citing a review of the facts of the case and Sheeler’s objections to the search warrant, according to a court document.
Sheeler had worked in the school district since 2000, and was set to return to the high school for the 2014-15 school year when she was charged, her complaint states.
A week after police searched her home, Gross asked Sheeler about what happened. Sheeler didn’t give the principal any information, asserting her constitutional right to “not incriminate herself,” her lawsuit said. In its response, the school district said Sheeler did not tell school officials she was exercising that right.
Also on July 29, 2014, Gray sent a letter to Sheeler, informing her that she’d been suspended without pay and that he’d recommend firing her to the Nevada school board at its Aug. 11, 2014, meeting.
Sheeler alleges the district fired her because of of the criminal charges against her, but the district’s response denies that claim. She also states in the lawsuit that Gross and Gray had taken her silence as an admission of guilt.
The lawsuit claims the district denied Sheeler of her constitutional rights to not incriminate herself and to due process, and had “deprived her of property while assuming she was guilty of a crime.” In its response, the district disputed the allegation, saying Sheeler could’ve maintained innocence by just saying she wasn’t guilty of the crime.
According to the school district’s response, Sheeler told Gross her lawyer had advised her not to comment on her legal matters, and that Sheeler had not invoked her Fifth Amendment right.
“She stated that her attorney told her that she should not comment, so while she didn’t specifically mention her Fifth Amendment right, that was basically what she was doing, so it’s really how you interpret what she said,” Zbaracki said.
The district also denies that it treated Sheeler different than other employees because of her age and gender.
Sheeler’s lawsuit also alleges that the Gray, Gross and Shaeffer defamed her character by speculating that she could have engaged in criminal activity on district property without evidence of such action. The lawsuit also points to comments Shaeffer made during an administrative law hearing, where he said he and Gray were worried Sheeler would commit crimes on school property.
The district denied the allegations and said the comments made during the hearing are privileged.