Riverhead School District bus driver Andrea Diaz was supposed to return to work in March after having been fired.
She and the district had reached a settlement agreement on her claim that the district had refused to accommodate her after shoulder surgery. In June, she finally returned to her workplace — behind the wheel of a school bus.
Ms. Diaz had filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights on May 14, 2014, shortly after the school board approved Superintendent Nancy Carney’s recommendation to terminate her employment, the News-Review reported earlier this year.
In that complaint, Ms. Diaz alleged she had been discriminated against in November 2012, after having shoulder surgery. She said she wasn’t given a school bus equipped with an automatic air door, which opens by pressing a button instead of pulling a handlebar.
Ms. Diaz and the district first reached a settlement in February, in which the district agreed to pay her $15,000 in back wages and reinstate her “immediately” upon passing a driving test.
She passed the test, but instead of receiving a start date, Ms. Diaz said the district sent her a letter March 4 — two days after she was to be rehired, according to the settlement — indicating that the county requires reinstated employees to pass an additional civil service physical examination.
She then appealed to a judge in the Division of Human Rights, indicating that her February settlement with the school district made no mention of a civil service test.
According to the latest agreement, approved by the school board May 12, Ms. Diaz agreed to take the civil service test and the district agreed to reinstate her upon passing and pay her an additional $5,888 in lost wages.
The district then hired Ms. Diaz in June, according to school board meeting minutes.
When contacted by the News-Review, neither Ms. Diaz nor Ms. Carney would comment on the settlement. Both parties agreed not to disclose any information relating to the contents of the stipulation, according to the agreement.
See our editorial: Riverhead schools show scary lack of transparency
The News-Review’s Freedom of Information Law request for a copy of the agreement was denied as an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” according to an email from Sam Schneider, the school district’s record officer and assistant superintendent.
However, the state Division of Human Rights later granted a separate FOIL request and provided the newspaper with a copy of the settlement agreement.
When asked to comment on the discrepancy in releasing documents, Ms. Carney defended the district’s decision to withhold the information.
“Under the Freedom of Information Law, municipalities are permitted to invoke certain exceptions to document disclosure,” she wrote in an email. “Invoking these exceptions, however, is within the judgment of the municipality. Some municipalities choose to apply these exceptions while others construe their meaning differently. That you were able to receive a document from one municipality or agency while another denied the production of the same document is due to this permissive exception applicability.”
In an interview Tuesday, Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s committee on open government, described the district’s response as “ridiculous.”
“What’s the district’s interest in shielding this information? They’re embarrassed,” he said. “Embarrassment isn’t one of the grounds listed in the law for withholding records.”
Both Ms. Diaz and her attorney, Shaun Hogan of Jericho, described the settlement as a victory.
Ms. Diaz added that she’s excited to have her job back.
“It was more about principles than anything else — the fact that the school isn’t above the law and it has to abide by the laws,” she said.