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Cal U instructor cites National Guard deployments for loss of job

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 2:36 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Zackary Dawson, 28, of Canonsburg (left), with lawyer Timothy O'Brien at O'Brien's office downtown on Thursday, April 18, 2013, says California University of Pennsylvania fired him because of his military deployments.

When Zackary Dawson joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in December 2011, he said, he did not suspect that his patriotism would cost him his job as a health sciences instructor at California University of Pennsylvania.

“I've known those people for a long time, some for close to 10 years, so it was an absolute shock,” said Dawson, 28, of Canonsburg.

Dawson, a lieutenant, claims in a lawsuit filed on Thursday in Washington County Common Pleas Court that the university; Thomas West, health sciences chairman; and Mary Hart, director of the gerontology program, violated state and federal laws protecting the jobs of National Guard and Reserve members.

Christine Kindl, a spokeswoman for the university, declined to comment.

Tim O'Brien, his lawyer and retired Army National Guard major, said the university decided to fire Dawson in December 2012 after two deployments totaling six weeks.

He said it is surprising that employees of a state university would think they could flout the law.

The law “has to stop an act like this in its tracks because if they can get away with it, anyone can get away with it,” O'Brien said.

Nicholas Krawec, a lawyer and Southwestern Pennsylvania Area chairman of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, said the scenario described by the lawsuit is unusual compared with the disputes his volunteer group normally mediates.

“Most of the time it's the lengthy deployments, the repeated deployments,” he said.

Krawec said he was not familiar with Dawson's claim, but many of the disputes his group handles arise because lower-level supervisors not familiar with the law act without first checking with human resource experts.

“They're pretty few and far between,” he said.

In Southwestern Pennsylvania there were only two or three cases last year and one case this year, he noted.

Dawson, who holds two degrees from Cal U and a doctorate in physical therapy from Chatham University, had been a part-time instructor at Cal U since December 2009. Before the deployments, West and Hart were considering making him a full-time instructor, the lawsuit states.

Instead, when Dawson returned from a training deployment to Fort Sam Houston in Texas in December, Hart refused to reinstate him as an instructor and West subsequently canceled Dawson's contract to teach during the spring 2013 semester, according to the lawsuit.

Hart left a voice-mail message on Dawson's phone questioning whether he could keep his job because of his military obligations, the lawsuit states.

West, in the email telling Dawson that he was fired, cites student complaints, but an Oct. 13 evaluation commends Dawson's “excellent relationship with students.”

Dawson is seeking reinstatement and lost wages as well as other damages.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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