When Public Officials Err, Lawyers Win

Employment / Personal Injury / Business

This has been a good year for lawyers.  We have the Lower Merion laptop fiasco still ongoing.  The school district’s use of spycam technology without an established policy generated a class action lawsuit, a second individual lawsuit, an internal investigation by outside lawyers hired by the school district, investigations into potential criminal conduct by the U.S. Attorney’s office, and work for attorneys hired by those being investigated.  The class action alone has generated legal fees in excess of a million dollars.  The court recently awarded the plaintiff’s attorney a couple hundred thousand dollars for his success in stopping the spycam practice and compelling the school district to craft a written policy with regard to use of the computers.


More recently, we have the drama unfolding at the Philadelphia Housing Authority.  A woman is suing the director, Carl Greene, and seeking $375,000 for sexual harassment.  The PHA Board has hired attorneys to investigate why they were not informed of three earlier sexual harassment settlements involving Mr. Greene.  Authorities are investigating various questionable activities that took place at the PHA during Mr. Greene’s tenure including deductions from employees’ pay for functions such as “teambuilding” and dinners honoring Mr. Greene.  And now Mr. Greene has sued the PHA Board for, among other things, damaging his reputation. 


Sadly, so much of the legal expense could have been avoided through sound written policies and good employment practices.  In the Lower Merion case, a policy establishing specific circumstances under which district employees could activate the technology, proper staff training, and consent forms notifying parents should have cost only several thousand dollars even at big law firm rates. 


At the PHA, one wonders how a director with three sexual harassment settlements costing several hundred thousand dollars obtained or kept his job.  No doubt, the PHA has a written policy forbidding sexual harassment.  However, when the top individual in an organization routinely disregards policy, the likelihood of the policy being carried out throughout the rest of the organization is severely diminished.  While the law protects subordinate employees who bring attention to their superiors’ inappropriate behavior in a good faith effort to enforce the policy, few employees are willing to risk their jobs.  Top officials for all employers, whether public or private, must give more than lip service to the written policies and allow employees to feel that they will be heard and taken seriously when they bring attention to improper workplace conduct.  Otherwise, the policies are not worth the fees paid for them and the lawyers will be kept busy cleaning up the mess.

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