Editorial: Gym teacher's firing still hurts | January 15, 2014 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - January 15, 2014

Editorial: Gym teacher's firing still hurts

Despite a state ruling that there was no illegal behavior involved prior to the dismissal of Menlo Park gymnastics instructor Michelle Sutton, she may continue to press her case in a civil lawsuit.

The ruling by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing said there was not enough evidence to cite the city on the very specific grounds of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation as a result of her being fired after she had asked for guidance from the city's human resources director and her union representative about how to file a complaint against her supervisor, Karen Mihalek. The common misunderstanding is that just treating someone unfairly is a violation when it is actually not, a state official said.

But while Menlo Park City Manager Alex MacIntyre said a third party investigator found that Ms. Sutton had not been illegally harassed or fired in retaliation for trying to file a complaint, he did say that certain supervisors and employees interacted inappropriately with Ms. Sutton on occasion. And in a search of Ms. Sutton's personnel file by the Almanac her record was clean: no reprimands or other citations were found.

Ms. Sutton is apparently not satisfied with these findings and said she may sue the city. Although her case will not be helped by the state ruling, it is certain to bring up the inept way the city handled her dismissal. Perhaps the most egregious mistake was after a week on the city's website, a copy of the complaint filed against Ms. Sutton was removed, along with at least a dozen emails posted by outraged parents in support of the popular gymnastics instructor. After a huge public outcry, the city restored the letters.

At the time the media law expert Jim Ewart told the Almanac removal of the email and comments was ludicrous, saying that such records are just like public comments made at a city council meeting. Mr. Ewart works for the California Newspaper Publishers Association in Sacramento.

Another instructor, Chris Ortez, quit the gymnastics program in protest over Ms. Sutton's firing, and told the City Council that Ms. Mihalek held "none-too-discreet" contempt for Ms. Sutton and reportedly had a history of complaints filed by at least two female staff members.

During her employment in Menlo Park, Ms. Sutton was a part-time, at-will employee, a status that carries few rights when compared to full-time city employees. As the name implies, such employees can be terminated without the need for documented justification.

But in this case, the legal findings do not square with all that we know about how Ms. Sutton was viewed by parents whose children attended her classes. Why was she dismissed after the city received just one letter from a parent who Ms. Sutton simply asked to follow the rule that parents are not permitted to be on the gym floor during certain routines? There were no citations for misconduct in her personnel file. Did one angry letter justify her quick dismissal?

The Almanac has learned that the state can now track whether multiple complaints are lodged against the same employer, so in the future it will be possible to determine if multiple claims have been filed against Menlo Park or other cities. To bring more transparency to such employee actions, the city should release statistics each year showing how many claims have been filed and within which department, as well as the outcomes, if any, from the state. Such a practice may give a supervisor pause before abruptly firing an employees without due cause, and allow the public to see whether one department has an inordinate number of disciplinary problems.


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