Washington Twp. woman hopes 3 is charm for 11-year fight to overcome overdose firing
By Paul Peirce
Published: Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Sherie L. Vrable hopes the third round in Commonwealth Court might be the charm in her nearly 11-year battle to be reinstated as a teacher's assistant with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit.
The state Supreme Court recently vacated a 2009 appellate court ruling upholding her 2002 firing as a result of an in-school overdose of narcotics and remanded the case to Commonwealth Court for another round of arguments.
It will be the third time that appellate court has heard arguments in the case that has bounced between a state arbitrator, Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court and the state appellate courts.
“I'm happy it's being heard again. I feel I deserve another chance ... and I'd like to have my job back,” Vrable, 54, said this week from her home in Washington Township, Fayette County.
She is represented by attorneys for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
In its Feb. 8 decision ordering more arguments in the lawsuit, the state Supreme Court directed Commonwealth Court judges to reconsider the case based on its own landmark ruling last year in another decade-old case involving a Philadelphia Housing Authority warehouse worker accused of sexual harassment.
Last year, the state high court overturned an arbitrator's award reinstating the employee, who was fired for sexually harassing a co-worker, ruling the reinstatement violates “dominant” public policy.
It is believed to be the first time a state Supreme Court applied a public policy exception in vacating an arbitration award.
In 2009, Commonwealth Court in a 2-to-1 decision found that Vrable's actions that led to her overdose on a fentanyl patch in a school bathroom violated a public policy to protect children from illegal drugs and drug use.
The appeals court reversed a decision by Westmoreland Judge Gary Caruso, who had upheld an arbiter's conclusion that Vrable shouldn't be fired because her infraction didn't rise to the level of “immorality,” as defined under the law.
Intermediate unit attorney John M. Ranker has argued that Vrable's actions were immoral because they occurred on school property and set a poor example for students.
“I received notice (Tuesday) that arguments will be scheduled in April,” he said.
Ranker said the school will continue to oppose the arbitrator's award placing Vrable back in the classroom. He noted in previous documented arguments that the arbiter's decision “clearly contravened public policy and disregarded the protection of elementary school children from the inherent dangers of drugs and drug abuse.”
Vrable, a 23-year teaching veteran with no previous blemishes on her employment record, worked in an emotional-support class at West Newton Elementary School. She was dismissed after she was found unconscious in a school restroom, and court records show that Vrable was treated for a drug overdose. West Newton police charged Vrable with possession of a controlled substance and she was sentenced to one year of probation.
During the arguments, the IU presented evidence that Vrable has an extensive history of drug abuse, including pain pills and “three to four” visits to rehabilitation units, according to court documents.
The state arbiter had reversed the initial firing and made her reinstatement subject to completion of drug and alcohol treatment classes and periodic drug screening, which Vrable maintains she has complied with.
In the 2009 Commonwealth Court ruling, the appellate court majority said, “The award essentially would allow (Vrable) to be placed back into the classroom pending her attempts at recovery. As noted ... the public policy of educating our children about dangers of illicit drugs and drug abuse and protecting children from exposure to drugs and drug abuse is compelling.
“Simply put, an elementary classroom is no place for a recovering addict,” the opinion states.
Despite an arbitrator's finding in the Philadelphia case that Thomas Mitchell, engaged in “lewd, lascivious (and) extraordinarily perverse” behavior and that his testimony was not credible, the arbitrator found the Philadelphia Housing Authority did not have just cause to fire him. The arbitrator ordered he be reinstated and granted back pay.
In August, the high court disagreed, with three justices writing separately to concur.
“Given the repeated (conduct) PHA sought to address, this should not be a difficult case,” Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote in a 21-page opinion in August. “A public employer cannot be denied the power to impose consequences for this sort of inappropriate, and facially criminal, conduct.”
“Indeed, with the general notion in mind that recognized rights must generally have some form of remedy, it is clear that there must be a power in public employers to take meaningful steps to vindicate dominant public policy,” Castille wrote.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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