Petrilli seeking new trial

Jury instructions flawed, ex-Booker T. principal claims

jwarren@herald-leader.comMarch 20, 2010 

Attorneys for a former Fayette County school principal have asked the Kentucky Court of Appeals to grant a new civil trial on her allegations that she was forced to resign from her job.

A Fayette Circuit Court jury rejected Peggy Petrilli's claim against the Fayette County Public Schools after a trial last July. Petrilli was the principal at Booker T. Washington Academy from 2005-2007.

Petrilli's lawyers argue in a brief filed with the appeals court Friday that a number of judicial errors occurred in the trial, particularly in instructions given to jurors.

Circuit Judge James Ishmael's first instruction to the jurors was to determine whether Petrilli resigned from Booker T. voluntarily. When the jury concluded the resignation was voluntary, all other issues in the case essentially became moot.

Also, Petrilli's attorneys argued that the judge's "threshold instruction" was "given in error because it is completely different from the elements of Petrilli's claims for reverse discrimination, retaliation and whistleblower ... ."

The brief contends that there should have been a jury instruction regarding "constructive discharge," which could apply if "conditions created by the employer's action are so intolerable that a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign."

"Thus, what may appear to a layman on the jury to be a voluntary resignation may in fact have been compelled by an employer's conduct," the brief argues. "Petrilli was entitled to a jury instruction explaining the difference."

Petrilli's attorney, J. Dale Golden, had said after last summer's trial that Ishmael's jury instruction would be a key issue when the case was appealed.

Petrilli, a former elementary school principal of the year, alleged in a civil suit against the Fayette Schools and Superintendent Stu Silberman that district officials forced her to quit to placate some Booker T. parents who wanted a black principal at the school. Petrilli is white.

She also alleged that some parents retaliated against her for such things as reporting a child who was living out of Booker T. Academy's attendance area.

The school system denied the existence of any campaign to oust Petrilli, portraying her as a dedicated principal who had administrative deficiencies that caused her to lose community support.

Months after Petrilli sued the school system, the district produced an investigative report suggesting that she improperly inflated student test scores at Booker T.

But a letter from the state Department of Education released earlier this week said there was not evidence to support such allegations.

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255.

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