SableGate: Back to Basics

Maybe, just maybe, the good citizens of Mt. Lebanon are guilty of a host of mistaken assumptions. Let's take the case apart, like a good detective should, and see if the pieces fit differently.

First, there's the question of the amount of money Margery Sable was paid. It's almost precisely what she would have earned had she served out her contract, leading to the plausible inference that the cause of this unpleasantness is or was job performance. But maybe the link isn't really there; maybe the overlap of salary and recent payout is just a coincidence. So it might not be fair to assume that this mess was in any way initiated by how the former Superintendent did her job.

Second, there's the economic calculus that the Board and its solicitor must have pursued. No one pays out $500,000 without a lawsuit over their heads, unless they think that the lawsuit-yet-to-be-filed would actually cost *more* than $500,000. So, let's suspect that the School District was facing a potential suit from Margery Sable in which the total amount that she would recover, discounted by her probability of success, plus the attorneys' fees that the District would pay, would be at least $500,000.

Third, there's the assumption that the School Board was reckless in paying out $500,000 for a situation that in the light of day should have cost nothing, or in any case much less than that. But maybe the Board was *saving* money for the taxpayers, paying $500,000 up front to avoid paying something much larger later on.

How do we put these hypothetical pieces together? Try this: What could Margery Sable have sued the School District for that would have yielded her more -- even a lot more -- than $500,000? One obvious answer is some form of employment discrimination or harassment, such as sexual harassment. Let's suppose that one or more School District employees was so hostile and intimidating that Margery Sable had a plausible case that she was entitled to tort damages against the District itself -- since, presumably, the District at least tolerated the behavior and therefore was legally responsible for it.

If that's true, then maybe the Board did the right thing in paying her off. But: the secrecy of the settlement remains intolerable, and what's worse, there's another shoe waiting to drop -- presumably the District now employs one or more people who should be held legally accountable for the harm caused to the District. Is that person prepared to reimburse us the $500,000 already spent?

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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