Blind World Magazine

Civil trial opens in case of fired head of state blind agency.

November 07, 2005.
Centre Daily Times (Penn State, USA).

HARRISBURG, Pa. - A blind woman who was fired from her job as head of Pennsylvania's state agency for the blind and visually impaired was discriminated against because of her disability, her lawyer said in court Monday.

Christine L. Boone is seeking lost wages and costs in her federal lawsuit against the state Department of Labor and Industry; the department's secretary, Stephen Schmerin; the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation; and its since-retired executive director, Stephen Nasuti.

Boone is also asking to be reinstated as director of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, a job she held for three years before being forced out in 2003 under disputed circumstances that are at the heart of the case.

Her lawyer, Arch Stokes, told jurors in an opening statement Monday that Nasuti and others were threatened by Boone's approach to the job.

"They didn't like the fact that she was pursuing things on behalf of the blind and visually impaired" in ways the agency previously had not, he said. Nasuti "did not want to tolerate an assertive, independent blind woman," Stokes said.

James P. Golden, representing the agencies, Schmerin and Nasuti, said Boone's termination "had nothing to do with whether she could see or not see." Boone had many shortcomings as a manager, he said.

"This case is about reliability," Golden said. "This case is about the equality to get fired. It's about management. It's about policymaking. And it's about judgment."

A letter sent to Boone by Schmerin said she was being dismissed because of insubordination, concern she would not carry out department policies and a lack of required skills, according to court records. Schmerin attended the trial Monday but declined comment.

Among the issues are Boone's supposed unwillingness to enforce a policy that would reduce college aid to blind students who receive merit scholarships. Stokes said the policy was never implemented - and last he knew, it still has not been put in place - but Golden said the policy existed before Boone headed the department.

"She was dismissed because she refused to implement the policy and did so openly so as to disrupt operations and undermine her supervisors' authority, and impair the efficiency of the agency," the state's lawyers wrote in a July filing.

If she does not get her job back, the value of Boone's past and future lost wages would exceed $1 million, Stokes told the jury. If she is rehired, the lost wages would be about $80,000, he said.

Three weeks after Boone's firing, about 60 supporters, most of them blind or visually impaired, held a rally in the state Capitol to urge officials to reinstate her.

The woman who replaced Boone at the agency, Pamela Shaw, also is blind, which state officials have cited as evidence that Nasuti was not biased against Boone.

The Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services helps blind or visually impaired Pennsylvanians find and keep jobs and to live independently. The bureau's more than 150 employees served nearly 10,000 people in the year that ended in September 2004.


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