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Motion filed to dismiss Lynn Camp sexual harassment suit

From The Times Tribune

KNOX COUNTY – A motion has been entered on behalf of the Knox County Board of Education requesting that a federal lawsuit filed against the board early last month by a special education teacher at Lynn Camp Elementary School accusing a principal of sexual harassment be dismissed due to improper service to the board and its members.

The motion was filed late last week in U.S. District Court by Teresa T. Combs, who represents the board solely for the purpose of this particular matter, and alleges that after the lawsuit was filed Dec. 3, 2018, a summons was issued to Superintendent Kelly Sprinkles the same day, with a copy of the summons and complaint later being delivered to Sprinkles via certified mail Dec. 10, 2018. The motion argues that neither method is authorized under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in regards to proper methods of service on a state governmental agency.

“Only two methods of service of process are authorized for service on a division of a state or local government: 1) by delivery of a copy of the summons and complaint to its chief executive officer; or 2) by serving a copy of the summons and complaint in the manner prescribed by that state’s law for serving summons or like process on such a defendant,” the motion reads.

Under the Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure, proper service of any public board or other such body—excluding state agencies—requires that at least one member be served. And though Sprinkles, as superintendent, is effectively the chief executive officer of Knox County Schools, he is not a member of the board of education, but instead an employee. With the summons and subsequent certified mail delivery being served to Sprinkles alone, the motion claims that the board was not properly served.

Further, the motion points to the use of certified mail to serve Sprinkles. Citing case law concerning a previous, similar case, the motion states that “service can not be completed on a state governmental agency using certified mail,” claiming that delivery must be done by way of “personal service.”

For both reasons, the motion asks that the lawsuit be dismissed. A decision will be made by U.S. District Judge Robert E. Wier.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Melinda Abner, of Laurel County, alleging that Lynn Camp High School Principal Anthony Pennington began engaging Abner in repeated sexual harassment in 2014 by “stating/sending inappropriate sexual remarks and request.” The suit further alleges that Pennington would place his hands on Abner’s body, pull her onto his lap and push “his erect penis against her.”

When Abner, who worked at Lynn Camp High School when the incidents began, rejected Pennington’s advances, he retaliated against her by “threatening her job, monitoring her actions, assigning her difficult and disproportionate amount of work and refusing to provide reasonable accommodation required for her disabilities,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also claims that Abner requested reasonable accommodations for several ailments she suffers from, including fibromyalgia, migraines, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome, in January 2017 to allow her to continue to adequately perform the essential functions of her job. Abner was not granted the accommodations she requested and, according to the lawsuit, was reassigned to a classroom that further debilitated her disabilities. She made multiple requests for her accommodations to be met, but each time was either ignored, berated or retaliated against.

From the time of her request the retaliation against her continued, with her allegedly being assigned “almost twice the number of special education students and more than three times the number of substitutions for other teachers than in the previous year” in fall 2017, despite substituting not being part of her typical duties. Pennington also allegedly began watching Abner’s movements on the school’s video monitoring system, questioning her each time she left a classroom or went to a restroom and “criticized and embarrassed” her in front of co-workers.

The ongoing retaliation eventually led to an extensive sick leave from October 2017 to August 2018. When she returned, she was demoted from her position at Lynn Camp High School and relocated to Lynn Camp Elementary School, the lawsuit claims.

After her return to work, Abner was required to monitor the elementary school foyer each morning, where Pennington, who works at the high school, was also assigned, according to the lawsuit. During that time, Pennington allegedly continued to watch and harass Abner.

Abner notified Sprinkles of the ongoing harassment and retaliation in an email in August 2018, according to the lawsuit. The issue was later reported to Sharon Oxendine with the Kentucky Education Association, who contacted Sprinkles concerning Pennington’s alleged sexual harassment, but no actions were taken by Sprinkles.

As part of the lawsuit, Abner is seeking all wages, benefits, compensation and other monetary losses suffered due to the harassment and retaliation, including her former position, salary seniority level, compensatory and punitive damages and attorney fees.

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