Pickens School District Accused of Defamation

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The Pickens County School System has been accused of committing character defamation. During the Pickens BOE meeting Thursday night, Citizen Gerald McPherson said the district defamed his character last November in a letter sent to his daughter Lynn Palmer, then employed with Pickens County as a social worker.

McPherson explained that he drove his daughter to work because of her epilepsy. The letter states one instance when McPherson was waiting for his daughter after work, he blew his horn to get the attention of some workers, made a hand gesture, and was verbally abusive to his daughter’s coworkers. McPherson, a pastor at Bethesda Baptist Church, denies these statements, calling them false and defamatory. He requested the document be removed from official school files and that the school system send a letter of apology. He also said defamation can be pursued under a civil or criminal lawsuit.

According to McPherson his daughter’s story goes back farther than last November. During his comments last night, McPherson explained that before January Palmer had worked for Pickens County School System for 11 years as a social worker. Then six years ago, she was diagnosed with epilepsy.

“For a long time,”

he said,

“she was accommodated and treated really well by her co-workers.”

But, because of her medical condition, she was unable to drive to her appointments. Under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), Palmer was permitted to request transportation accommodations, which were by law to be granted. McPherson says the school system denied Palmer these accommodations. As such, he drove her to all appointments, dropping her off and picking her up from the various schools and places she had to go to. Following the districts’ denial of transportation accommodations, Palmer filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which said it would investigate the matter.

“The school system retaliated by making it as hard on her as they possibly could—writing her up, harassing her—just made her life miserable, which caused her epilepsy to worsen; her seizures became more numerous,”

McPherson said.

In January the district and Palmer were involved in a hearing, where Palmer was appealing then Superintendent Ben Desper’s recommendation to the board for her termination. Desper told FYN that the official reasons for this recommendation were insubordination and willful neglect of duties.

During the hearing the superintendent gave several accounts of Palmer’s alleged work record, highlighting situations where she fell short of expectations, neglect of duties, and insubordination. The superintendent also said that the district worked with Ms. Palmer to improve her performance, saying she was given a Professional Development Plan (PDP). Despite his recommendation to the board for Palmer’s dismissal, Desper noted that Palmer’s performance improved slightly. Defense Attorney Phil Friduss argued that the PDP was evidence the district attempted to help, providing a probationary period prior to recommendation for dismissal, and that the district was not in violation of Georgia’s Fair Dismissal Act.

Arguing for the plaintiff, Attorney Stewart Duggan cited Palmer had not received a bad write-up in almost ten years and that four principals had given her good reviews. He added that co-workers had allegedly spied on her, documenting work, and medical visits. McPherson underscored these claims Thursday night.

During the January hearing, Palmer, who was present at the hearing, suffered a seizure. Following the seizure, the attorneys from both sides met in conference, when the plaintiff issued the following statement:

“Ms. Palmer denies each of the charges and allegations and facts testified. She still contends she is a victim of illegal discrimination and retaliation. This resignation is also a waiver of her rights under the Georgia Fair Dismissal Act and is being offered contingent upon receiving her full salary through February 28, 2013. She understands that she will remain on administrative leave with pay through February 28, 2013.”

The EEOC complaint and subsequent investigation is still pending.

Following the Thursday night’s meeting, FYN asked School Board Chair Wendy Lowe about the investigation. Lowe said she didn’t know if the EEOC had contacted the school system. She also said she wasn’t sure if the document in question could be removed from the files, adding that the board will look into the matter. She did not mention the possibility of sending an apology to McPherson. For his part, Superintendent Desper said he wasn’t allowed to comment on McPherson’s comments because they dealt with personnel.

“People are allowed to have their opinions,”

he said,

“And you have to respect that.”

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