Steiner seeks removal from lawsuit against Bellefonte Area School District

A Bellefonte Area School District board member has asked a judge to remove him from the federal lawsuit brought by a fired elementary school principal.

Jeff Steiner on Wednesday filed a motion in U.S. Middle District Court claiming he has immunity because his alleged defamatory comments about Elaine Cutler were made at a public meeting in his role as a school board member.

In her suit, Cutler contends that the school board violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it fired her Sept. 10, 2013, and that Steiner defamed her by equating her performance as principal of Bellefonte Elementary School to criminal offenses.

In a brief in support of his motion to dismiss the claims against him, Steiner points out that his remarks were made at a board hearing related to Cutler’s termination.

He cites court decisions that state school board members are high public officials entitled to absolute immunity from state lawsuits when acting in their official capacities, which he said is the case here.

Steiner further argued that his statements were his opinion on the nature and grounds of the charges levied by the board against Cutler.

Citing what he said are well-known legal principles, Steiner claims none of the statements made by him as a school board member at a public hearing were defamatory.

Cutler’s suit stated that, while serving as the elementary school principal, she suffered significant health issues including debilitating migraines, an autoimmune rheumatic disease known as Sjogren’s syndrome and, in April 2009, a stroke.

Cutler says the district administration was made aware of her condition but at the end of the 2011-12 school year Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger gave her an unsatisfactory performance rating and placed her on an improvement plan.

Cutler alleges Potteiger used that plan to harass, belittle and discriminate against her in the following school year by applying different performance standards and not allowing her direct supervision over a vice principal.

After a second unsatisfactory performance rating, the district moved to terminate Cutler, who requested the public hearing. Steiner made his alleged defamatory remarks at that hearing.

Cutler accuses the district of age and disability discrimination, violating the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and defamation in relation to Steiner’s remarks.

Her suit seeks unspecified damages noting Cutler has lost pay, medical insurance and other benefits.