Blind World Magazine

$3.4 million awarded to blind woman who was "discriminated against."

November 22, 2005.
Associated Press.

HARRISBURG, Pa. - A federal jury awarded $3.4 million Tuesday to a blind woman who was fired as head of Pennsylvania's state agency for the blind and visually impaired, ruling that she was discriminated against because of her disability.

The six-woman, two-man jury awarded her $180,000 in "front pay" - future wages she lost because she was fired - but her lawyer said he will instead ask the judge to reinstate her to her old position.

"We're going to beg for her job back," said Boone's attorney, Arch Stokes.

Boone, 44, said she was "elated" by the verdict.

"I'm so proud of everybody who helped us bring this case to fruition," she said. "There are a lot of employees who really put a great deal on the line to come and testify for us."

Boone sued the state Department of Labor and Industry and its head, Secretary Stephen Schmerin, as well as the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and its since-retired executive director, Stephen Nasuti.

In the jury award, each man was ordered to pay $1.5 million in compensatory damages for emotional distress Boone said she suffered as a result of their actions. The award also included punitive damages and the value jurors put on her lost future earning power.

Of the total, Schmerin was assessed $1.74 million and Nasuti $1.62 million. The jury decided that Boone had proven that the two men made false, defamatory and stigmatizing public statements about her firing that called into question her good name, reputation and professional qualifications.

State-paid insurance policies will completely cover both men, said the defendants' lawyer, James P. Golden. He said he plans to file post-verdict motions, followed by an appeal if they are unsuccessful.

"The jury misunderstood all kinds of things," said Golden, who argued that Boone was fired because of her shortcomings as a manager, not because of her disability.

Schmerin said he was disappointed by the verdict.

"We think there are many areas that can be addressed by our attorneys," he said. Nasuti declined comment.

The jury determined that Boone's firing was either motivated by "an evil motive or intent" or the two men acted with "reckless or callous indifference" to her rights.

Boone's lawyers have 10 days to file a memo with U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo that addresses the reinstatement question.

Boone was director of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services for three years before being forced out in 2003 under disputed circumstances that were at the heart of the case.

The state may have to pay a portion of Boone's legal fees, Stokes said.

"Christine Boone wants the disabled to be abled, that's what she fights for," he said.

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.

End of article.

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