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Federal judge recommends dismissal of P-T teacher's suit

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 7:04 a.m.

A federal magistrate judge is recommending the dismissal of a former Penn-Trafford High School Spanish teacher's lawsuit against the school district, high school principal and two retired administrators.

But Judith Bielewicz's attorney, Joseph Hudock Jr., said his client will file a new case in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court if the commissioned district judge accepts the magistrate's recommendation and closes the case in U.S. District Court in downtown Pittsburgh.

In a report issued last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly recommended that District Judge Terrence McVerry grant summary judgment in favor of the district, Principal Scott Inglese, former Superintendent Deborah Kolonay and former Assistant Superintendent Harry Smith.

Kelly wrote that Bielewicz, 58, of Manor, failed to establish a sufficient case that the district violated her First Amendment rights by suspending her in March 2010 after school officials said she wasn't adhering to a performance-improvement plan.

District officials said that she was suspended and later fired because of her job performance. Bielewicz said the district retaliated against her because she complained a year earlier to Inglese about the removal of a female student who was struggling in her class in the last two weeks of a grading period.

Kelly also recommended that the federal court relinquish jurisdiction for Bielewicz's remaining allegation under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law — that she was forced to change students' grades arbitrarily and other ethical issues — to a state court. District officials have said those allegations are untrue.

On the First Amendment claim, Bielewicz said it was a matter of public concern — and, therefore, protected speech — when she complained that the student's removal violated a school policy on class transfers. But Kelly wrote that Bielewicz's complaint rose from her role as a teacher, not as a public citizen.

“It is clear from the record that one of a teacher's core duties is assessing the academic progress of students,” Kelly wrote. “Bielewicz's complaint to Inglese on March 6, 2009, was an internal communication ‘undertaken in the course of performing' her primary employment responsibility.”

Bielewicz's attorney, Hudock, said his client still is considering her options, which might include filing an objection to Kelly's report by Feb. 15. Even if Hudock objects, McVerry still might rule to accept Kelly's recommendation.

“It was (recommended to be) dismissed on a technicality; it wasn't on the merits,” Hudock said. “And we're going to move forward in the state courts in all likelihood.”

Christina Lane, one of the attorneys representing Penn-Trafford, said she is confident McVerry will uphold Kelly's recommendations if Bielewicz objects to the report.

“We believe it's the correct decision,” she said.

The district spent all of a $10,000 insurance deductible for fees incurred by the Andrews & Price law firm for work on the case, said Brett Lago, district's director of financial planning and business affairs.

Bielewicz, who taught at Penn-Trafford for eight years, was earning $55,445 when she was suspended, according to district records.

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8671 or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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