Penn Hills School District, former custodian reach $55,000 settlement
A former custodian who accused the Penn Hills School District of violating her civil rights has reached a $55,000 settlement with the district, according to information obtained through a Right-to-Know request made by the Penn Hills Progress.
Diane Coglio filed a lawsuit against the district in November 2011, after resigning in May 2011.
According to court documents, during an April 2011 shift, Coglio misplaced her cellular phone, which was discovered by a district employee.
Coglio then was called to an April 29, 2011, meeting with school district administrators, who said they had observed racist text messages on the phone.
The suit claims that Coglio was shown photos taken of the text messages on her phone.
Coglio's lawsuit said that, because district administrators would have had to manipulate the phone in order to read what otherwise would have been privately-sent text messages, they had violated her Fourth Amendment rights.
According to court documents, administrators said they had a right to search the phone because it had been found by a district employee, and because it had become “‘property' of PHSD by virtue of Ms. Coglio having lost it during her shift,” according to the lawsuit.
John Stember, a partner specializing in labor law at Pittsburgh firm Stember, Feinstein, Doyle, Payne & Kravec, said that while state law does not address this specific situation, several of the accusations in the lawsuit are concerning.
“Certainly employees don't give up their rights when they report to work at the school,” Stember said, adding that it “certainly bothers me that they (allegedly) looked at text messages and took photographs of them.”
Coglio said that district administrators pressured her to resign, according to the lawsuit, and she also participated in a Loudermill hearing — part of the due process that must be provided to a government employee prior to his or her removal or disciplinary action — on May 4, 2011. In a letter regarding the hearing, district business director Richard Liberto said that when Coglio's phone was given to an unnamed building administrator, the text messages in question immediately showed up.
Coglio's attorney, Richard Matesic of Mt. Royal Law in Shaler, said that was false. “A user must engage in at least five separate manipulations of (the) phone's various menus and sub-menus” in order to reach written text messages, Matesic wrote, also stating that the search of the phone was both unreasonable and illegal and that administrators' interpretation of the text messages was both “unreasonable and false.”
Matesic also said Coglio was deprived of her contract with the district because of her race — Coglio is white — and that “defendants would not have threatened Ms. Coglio with public accusations of racism, nor coerced her into resigning her position, had she been African-American,” he wrote in the lawsuit.
Matesic declined to comment but noted in an email that the terms of the settlement are confidential.
In responding to the Progress's Right-to-Know request, Liberto said the $55,000 settlement was paid by the district's insurance carrier.
Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.