Mont Vernon school janitor sues district, claims he was fired for having Asperger’s Disorder

MONT VERNON – A former custodian at the Mont Vernon Village School is suing the Amherst-Mont Vernon school district, alleging it discriminated against him because he has Asperger’s Disorder.

According to papers filed in United States District Court, Mark Bellerose charges that SAU 39 violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and New Hampshire state law when it refused to renew his contract in 2010 and later failed to rehire him. The district, which covers the two towns, denies his allegations and says his dismissal was not related to any disability. The school district asked the U.S. District Court to toss out the suit, but judge Paul Barbadoro denied that request on Dec. 29, allowing the lawsuit to go forward.

The ADA makes it unlawful for an employer to fail to reasonably accommodate an employee’s known disability.

Asperger’s Disorder is characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relatively normal verbal and cognitive development.

According to the paperwork, Bellerose worked in the school from 2006 to 2010, and during that time received one annual performance appraisal, in which he was rated “Outstanding” in eight categories and “Very Good” in three categories, for a total of 52 out of a possible 55 points.

In 2008-2009, he complained to several people inside and outside the school district, including his supervisor, Dennis Melanson, the school’s facilities manager, about conditions in the school that he said violated the building rules and the health code. Among his concerns were mold growing on classroom walls and ice dams on the school roof, and what he called his supervisor’s “inadequate response to many maintenance problems.”

Warning letters from the supervisor told him that he failed to follow the proper chain of command, according to court papers. At another time the supervisor charges that Bellerose was “belligerent and disrespectful” when talking with his supervisor and the school principal.

In May of 2010, according to the civil suit, Principal Sue Blair met with Bellerose and told him his contract would not be renewed for the 2010-2011 school year. During the meeting, Bellerose alleges that Blair said: “Your Asperger’s got in the way of your ability to interact with your boss, and we are tired of it.”

SAU 39 officials argue that Bellerose does not have a qualifying disability and it challenges his disability claim on the ground that it did not refuse to renew his contract or rehire him because of his disability.

The court denied a motion from SAU 39 officials for summary judgment, but decided to hear the janitor’s claims regarding discrimination and regarding state laws protecting whistleblowers and public employees’ freedom of expression.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@cabinet.com.