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Published: Friday, 11/4/2005

Disabilities agency worker files suit over termination

WAUSEON - A longtime trustee for Dover Township in Fulton County sued the Fulton County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities this week, claiming he was fired from his $9-an- hour job at the disabilities agency last year because he reported a co-worker's abuse of a disabled client and because he is blind in one eye.

Joe Borton said in the lawsuit he saw Laura Kutzli repeatedly tell a profoundly disabled woman "to shut up and frequently kicked her wheelchair, sending her into startle seizures," in September, 2004.

Mr. Borton, who was a vocational habilitation programmer, reported the abuse to his supervisor and Ms. Kutzli was suspended and ultimately terminated after the allegations of abuse were corroborated, according to his lawsuit filed Tuesday in Fulton County Common Pleas Court.

But immediately after her removal, the lawsuit goes on to say, Mr. Borton's co-workers shunned him, repeatedly asked him to quit, and began referring to him as "the problem."

He reported the harassment to his supervisor, Ruth Spencer, on several occasions, the suit says, and she told him his co-workers could no longer trust him because he reported Ms. Kutzli. Ms. Spencer told him to work to regain their trust, the suit says, but took no action to stop the harassment.

Instead, she began closely scrutinizing his work, which had only been commended before he blew the whistle on Ms. Kutzli, the lawsuit says. It goes on to say that Ms. Spencer harassed Mr. Borton because he is legally blind in his left eye and issued unwarranted discipline to him.

Mr. Borton, who had been hired part-time in January, 2004, and offered a full-time position six months later, was on probation as a new employee.

Dan Pfahl, who was then superintendent of the disabilities agency, proposed immediately making Mr. Borton a permanent employee because of his superior performance when Mr. Borton met with him about the situation, the lawsuit says.

But on Nov. 19, 2004 - two days before Mr. Borton's probation expired - Ms. Spencer fired him, according to the lawsuit.

In a memo to several disabilities board members the previous day, the superintendent wrote that Ms. Spencer's recommendation to fire Mr. Borton had nothing to do with whistle-blowing or his sight problems.

"Unfortunately, Joe has not been successful at working with the other employees," Superintendent Pfahl wrote. "He has displayed signs of anger that are intimidating. He has not accepted training by his peers that has led to mistakes. We have worked with the team to improve their internal communications without success, and we believe that his removal will result in a more positive work environment. I have gotten compliments on the level of caring that Joe has expressed for the clients, but more recently I have heard complaints on the poor attitude that seems to prevail the REACH program."

None of the employees named in the lawsuit remains at the disabilities agency. Ms. Kutzli and Mr. Borton were both terminated. Superintendent Pfahl resigned under fire in December. And Ms. Spencer's contract was not renewed by the board, and she left in July after five years with the agency.

Ms. Kutzli filed an equal employment opportunity complaint against the disabilities agency, but the county's hearing officer found her claims of discrimination were unsupported.

Current Superintendent Brenda Oyer said the county prosecutor would determine the appropriate response to the lawsuit.

"This happened way before I was ever around," said Ms. Oyer, who was hired last spring. She added that she was curious why the lawsuit was filed Tuesday, exactly a week before the disabilities board is asking voters for a new 2-mill continuing levy on the general election ballot.

Mr. Borton also is on Tuesday's ballot. He is unopposed for his fifth term as a Dover Township trustee.

He has been a trustee since 1990 and was the high vote-getter among competitors two of the four times he has run for election.

Mr. Borton said he is unemployed. Before he was employed at the disabilities agency, he had been a truck driver and self-employed farmer, but left farming for financial reasons, according to documents in the agency's file.

He referred questions about the lawsuit to his attorney, who declined to comment.



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