What does it take to win a lawsuit against one of the wealthiest school districts in the state?
A jury agreed that Radnor Township School District had retaliated against Esther Purnell when it fired her in 2019. Purnell, the former Radnor Middle School principal, said she feels vindicated.
Earlier this year, an all-White jury found district officials had retaliated against the Black principal after she complained that someone in authority was discriminating against her. Purnell said she is just now recovering from her termination and the stress of the lawsuit and trial in federal court and finally felt able to speak to the Delaware Valley Journal.
“We survived,” said Purnell. “We are grateful, and are moving forward as a family.”
The Radnor Township School District “is so rich, they’re so powerful, they’re so intimidating,” she said. “They’re always the number one or number two school district (academically) in the state.”
“People always said to me, ‘How in the world can you be working at a predominately White district?’ And I was the first female African American principal. I’m sure I’m the last.”
Purnell was hired by the district in 2002 as an emotional support teacher, and then promoted to assistant principal and finally principal at RMS. When she was principal, the middle school was recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.
After Purnell complained to Superintendent Kenneth Batchelor on Sept. 6 and 7, 2019 about her supervisor, administrator Maureen McQuiggan, she suddenly she began to get negative reports to human resources after years with a spotless record.
“Mrs. Purnell had over 16 years of employment with RTSD and no disciplinary history before her complaint,” said her lawyer Chris DelGaizo. “RTSD brought eight different disciplinary actions against Mrs. Purnell after her complaint, to support termination.
“On November 27, 2018, Mrs. Purnell was suspended indefinitely. She never returned to work. She was terminated vis-a-vis a vote by the (school) board.”
The jury awarded Purnell $874,000 on May 10 after deliberating for 10 hours, said DelGaizo. Part of that amount was $250,000 for emotional damages, which was not reduced.
However, after he found that she had not sought similar employment, Judge Joshua D. Wolson reduced the wage loss damages, and the total awarded to Purnell was $362,279. Under Title VII, only a judge can award wage loss damages, he said.
“Attorney fees, costs, and pre-judgment interest were all paid separate from the award, by RTSD,” DelGaizo said. “The jury found RTSD retaliated against Mrs. Purnell for having complained of discrimination.”
While Purnell is pleased with the outcome, she said, “You can never repay me for the disparagement or the embarrassment. They terminated a 35-year career. I’m glad my mom was deceased. This would have pushed her over the edge.”
Despite the jury’s verdict, the district denied that it discriminates or retaliates.
“This litigation was long ago concluded. As a matter of policy and practice – and in every facet of our educational organization – we stand firmly against discrimination, bias, and retaliation,” said Theji Brennan, a spokesperson for Radnor Township School District.
Purnell said she relied on her faith in God, her church, and her family to get her through the litigation, which took much longer than she expected it would. She also began an educational and personal consulting business, Salty Oasis.
Purnell also sought counseling to get her through the stress of being fired and then from the lawsuit.
“I am still glad that I pursued it,” she said.