FORT MYERS, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - A former Collier County, Fla., Public Schools employee claimed in a lawsuit filed on Friday that she was blackballed by the school district after filing a complaint about misappropriation of federal and state funds.
Virginia Ortino, a former career education manager at the district, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida against the School Board of Collier County, claiming violation of whistleblower laws and the state’s False Claims Act.
According to court papers, Ortino met with Howard Berryman on May 17, 2007, to explain the misappropriation of a Teaching Academy Grant and the resulting hostile working relationship with her supervisor, Brenda “BJ” Lattanzi, after she hesitated to sign off on the grant request.
In that meeting, Ortino claims she was told she would be backballed from the district if she filed a formal complaint against Lattanzi and the Career Ed Department. Ortino further alleges that Berryman suggested she leave her position and apply for teaching jobs within the district, even providing her with a letter of recommendation the following day.
Three months later, Ortino offered to resign from her position with a 30-day paid administrative leave because of the tense environment and because Lattanzi was not allowed to speak to her, she says.
Ortino – who received only excellent evaluations during her employment – claims she was blocked by the district from obtaining full-time employment within and outside the district as a full-time teacher, the complaint says. She claims she applied for more than 100 teaching positions from February 2008 to August 2014 and was denied interviews for positions she was overly qualified for.
Court papers cite emails from district administrator Cynthia M. Janssen recommending that Ortino not be hired for jobs at the district’s Pace School for Girls and Immokalee Beacon School. In reply to Immokalee principal Bill Spano’s email to Janssen asking about Ortino, Janssen allegedly replied with “NO NO NO!!!!!! Nada, nein, and double H, all caps NO!!!!!!”
Ortino also alleges that information included on an internal software program only accessible by district employees said that she was not eligible for hire other than for adult education programs on a part-time, hourly basis and that she resigned from her position in 2008 with prejudice. That information does not appear anywhere in Ortino’s employee file, she says.
Ortino is seeking to be reinstated with the same seniority status she would have had with constant employment with the district from February 2008 to Aug. 15, 2014. She is also seeking lost compensation, back pay, interest on back pay, compensatory damages and legal fees.
Attorney Benjamin H. Yormak is representing the plaintiff.
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida case number 2:14-cv-00693