Former teacher suing for discrimination

Former teacher suing for discrimination

O’Brien testimony shows lack of policies on catastrophic benefits

SMITHFIELD – Copies of a May 2 deposition involving Supt. Robert O’Brien sheds light on the district’s catastrophic benefit policy, or rather, lack thereof.

O’Brien was deposed as part of a pending lawsuit from Mary Lurgio against the Smithfield School Department.

The former 5th-grade teacher who suffers from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic liver disease, and Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory gastrointestinal illness, first filed suit in April of last year against the School Department for alleged discrimination after being denied catastrophic benefits.

Lurgio is seeking $847,000 in damages. The number represents the cost of life insurance as well as the loss of benefits and income, according to the suit. It does not include compensation for pain and suffering, or punitive damages.

Lurgio said the deposition shows the hurdles she was asked to go through, all while dealing with serious health issues.

“That’s really what it is, is discrimination and not understanding my illness,” she said. “It was hurtful.”

The superintendent would not comment on pending litigation. School Committee Chairman Sean Clough did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

O’Brien’s testimony in an eight-hour deposition, obtained by The Valley Breeze & Observer, shows that:

• The School Department does not have a human resources department, despite an audit completed by B&E Consulting in which the company states “that the bifurcation of the department may be resulting in certain information and tasks being missed, or worse still, certain information not being held confidential.” Right now O’Brien and various administrative employees take on HR related tasks, in addition to their other work.

• There is no written policy for administrators or staff to consult on how to apply for, qualify for, or grant a catastrophic benefit. All information about catastrophic benefits is delivered verbally in executive sessions or meetings with a union representative.

• Granting of a catastrophic benefit is based solely on a doctor’s note that describes the applicant’s illness as “life threatening.” The School Committee has never engaged in any analysis of what type of illness or injury is considered life threatening.

The deposition also hints at inconsistencies in the application and approval process.

For example, Lurgio’s request for catastrophic benefits was denied in November 2014 just months after she received catastrophic benefits in June of that same year.

The second time around, Lurgio produced the required doctor’s note, but also met with O’Brien and wrote a letter to the School Committee.

In the deposition, attorney Peter Skwirz asks O’Brien, “Have you ever asked for additional application materials for other applicants besides a doctor’s note?”

“I, not that I recall,” O’Brien said.

Lurgio, it appears, is the only applicant ever asked to provide a higher burden of proof.

Notable is the fact that Lurgio’s request was denied by the School Committee at the recommendation of O’Brien.

In the deposition, Skwirz asks O’Brien, “With regard to your recommendation to grant a catastrophic benefit to an employee, does the School Committee always follow your recommendation?”

“Yes,” O’Brien said.

Going forward, Lurgio said she is seeking to get on the next School Committee agenda and plans to ask once again for the catastrophic benefit, applied retroactively.


It would be interesting and informative if Mr O'Brien would provide some rationale for his recommendation to deny this contractually negotiated benefit to a member that clearly had legitimate health issues. The fact that he does not, leads one to speculate that his motives were petty and personal. Could it be some sort of animosity left over from Mrs Lurgio serving as a Building Rep or on three Contract Negotiation Teams,or some other perceived slight? He certainly knew who she was and was well aware of her health issues. It was also interesting to hear Mr O'Brien testify that the School Committee always follows his recommendations. So is he saying that the School Committee is just his own personal Rubber Stamp? Who works for who? Maybe this is why O'Brien didn't want a Human Resource Person in Central Administration, someone might look critically and see that the "Emperor has no clothes". Perhaps Smithfield residents need to look at the makeup of the SC more critically in the next election, especially in light of O'Brien's pending retirement (is this suite O'Brien's Retirement Gift to the incoming Superintendent?). It appears new blood needs to be infused into this system. Perhaps people will run who WILL UNDERSTAND that the Superintendent serves at the pleasure of the School Committee and not the other way around. Candidates are needed that understand that the SC is part of the system of checks and balances that should have prevented things from getting to this point for Mrs Lurgio and the town. Perhaps people will run that will have a greater impact on the School System rather than just wearing a cap and gown at the Graduation and making a proud speech . If this is Smithfield's own Game of Thrones, I say "SHAME!"on the Superintendent and HIS School Committee.