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Couple’s retaliation charge against school district reinstated

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A couple working for a school district — who were allegedly both terminated because of a safety dispute shortly before the superintendent who fired them was terminated himself — can pursue their retaliation claims, says a divided federal appeals court in overturning a lower court ruling.

Ronald Ryan Berrett, a maintenance supervisor for Clark County School District No. 161 in Dubois, Iowa, and his wife, Lanie Berrett, who was a lunchroom supervisor, were terminated by superintendent Dave Kerns on June 30, 2012, according to court papers in Ronald Ryan Berrett and Lanie Berrett, husband and wife, v. Clark County School District No. 1616. Mr. Kerns’ termination of the couple came the month after Mr. Kerns had been terminated by the board, but before the loss of his job became effective.

According to the complaint in the case, before his termination, Mr. Berrett, who was also disabled, had become involved in a dispute with Mr. Kerns over a propane tank at an old gymnasium owned by Clark County.

A services firm operator determined the tank was not safe or legal, according to the complaint.  When Mr. Berrett reported the problem and showed Mr. Kerns the quote to fix it, Mr. Kerns allegedly told him “to keep quiet about the problem because of the cost,” the complaint said.  Mr. Berrett responded “he could not keep quiet because the situation was unsafe” and affected school children.

In April, 2012, Mr. Kerns wanted to continue to use the gymnasium and the propane tank, but Mr. Berrett advised him against it because of the safety risk, according to the complaint.  Nothing more was resolved before Mr. Kerns’ employment was terminated in May.

After their termination, the Berretts filed suit on charges including retaliation, disability discrimination and housing discrimination, because the couple was asked to leave their housing, which was owned by Clark County, after their termination.

The U.S. District Court in Seattle dismissed the entire case and the couple appealed.  A divided panel of the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco reinstated the retaliation charges, while upholding dismissal of the remaining charges.

Mr. Berrett “may have been fired for reporting the propane issue,” said the ruling, in reinstating his retaliation claim under Idaho’s whistleblower act.

In Ms. Berrett’s case, the District Court “failed to address Ms. Berrett’s common law claim for termination of public policy – that is, firing her in retaliation for her husband’s statutorily protected whistleblower activity – and should consider on remand whether this claim also survives summary judgment,” said the majority ruling.

The dissenting opinion disagreed about reinstating Ms. Berrett’s claim.  “The District Court reasonably addressed (and rejected) this claim to the extent Ms. Berrett raised and argued it,” it said.