PITTSBURGH (CN) – A school custodian who lost her cell phone at work says she was fired under threat of being publicly branded a racist after her bosses illegally searched her phone and found a text message she wrote that said, “I’m in niggerville doing nigger work.”
Diane Coglio sued the Penn Hills School District, its school board, superintendent and business director on constitutional grounds, in Federal Court.
Coglio claims the text message on the personal phone she lost inside Penn Hills High School was “entirely private” and had been sent only to her sister-in-law. She says that no one working for the school district was meant to see the message, and that another allegedly racist message on her phone actually pointed out “the fact that certain PHSD employees were being permitted to flout their responsibilities and receive pay for work that they had not performed.”
Coglio claims the school district business director, Richard Liberto, told her that “if she did not resign and go away quietly, she would be branded a racist.”
Two say after she lost her phone, Coglio says, she was called into a meeting at the school district’s administration office. By then, she says, she and her husband had searched for her phone by calling it more than 11 times and had told several teachers and staff at the school that it was missing.
Coglio says Liberto opened the meeting by telling her, “We found your phone,” and that Penn Hills personnel had determined that her phone “contained a racial slur and other information that PHSD ‘did not approve of.'”
The complaint continues: “Liberto then began reading out loud from his own cell phone, on which appeared several photographic images, aka ‘screenshots’, of two text messages from Ms. Coglio’s phone. Liberto admitted that he had photographed the text messages from the display on Ms. Coglio’s phone. One of the two photographed text messages that Liberto read out loud contained the phrase ‘I’m in niggerville doing nigger work’ while another complained that two of Ms. Coglio’s co-workers, both of whom were African American, had stopped working and retired to a
lounge area two hours before the end of their scheduled shift.”
Coglio claims that the manner in which the school district seized and searched her phone, and reacted, violated the 1st, 4th and 14th Amendments.
She says that Liberto, and perhaps other additional administrators, “knowingly and intentionally performed a search of [her] cell phone in an effort to excavate information which could be used against her.”
Coglio says that 2 years ago she received a verbal reprimand from her direct supervisor, who “advised her to be more prudent in choosing with whom to associate” after an anonymous tip reported that Coglio was maintaining a “hit list” of fellow custodians and wanted to have certain persons fired. (10)
Coglio says that when her phone was found and illegally searched by Liberto, he also discovered the name and number of one of her friends who happened to be a former school board member and prominent politician in Penn Hills Borough.
Liberto says she “feared that Ms. Coglio would eventually take her complaints regarding her co-workers to persons other than PHSD administrators … and that he, Liberto, would eventually have to answer publicly to the charge of harboring and paying employees who were not performing their work.”
She claims that Liberto acknowledged that he had photographed the text messages from the display on her phone, claiming that when the phone was found and turned in to a building administrator, the administrator simply opened the phone and pushed the “OK” button to reveal text messages that “spontaneously appeared.”
Coglio says that’s nonsense: “In order to display the text messages on Ms. Coglio’s cell phone, a user must engage in at least five separate manipulations of phone’s various menus and sub-menus. In actuality, Liberto (and perhaps other PHSD administrators) knowingly and intentionally performed a search of Ms. Coglio’s cell phone in an effort to excavate information which could be used against her.”
Coglio says Liberto claimed he had the right to search her phone because it had been found by a PHSD employee and had become the “property” of the school district because Coglio lost it during her work shift. She says Liberto demanded that she resign and threatened that she “would ‘be known as a racist’ and thereby rendered unemployable if she didn’t quit. In other words, Liberto threatened to publicize that Ms. Coglio was a racist if she did not resign her position with PHSD.
“Ms. Coglio rejected Liberto’s demands, at which point Liberto suspended her
She claims that “Liberto concocted the false allegation that Ms. Coglio was a racist, in order to embarrass and intimidate her from bringing evidence of malfeasance by PHSD administrators to light.” She claims that “Liberto sought to punish Ms. Coglio for her associations with other persons,” some of whom she names, and says that he sought “to chill these associations.”
“Liberto feared that Ms. Coglio had voiced, and would continue to voice, to her associates and fellow residents of Penn Hills Borough, her legitimate concerns regarding the malfeasance of PHSD administrators,” according to the complaint.
During her Loudermill hearing, Coglio says, she was told she would remain eligible to receive unemployment benefits if she agreed to resign.
Coglio says that during her 4½ years at the district she “maintained harmonious relations with most of her fellow employees, and did so regardless of their race.” She says she “did not exhibit racist attitudes or engage in racially motivated behaviors of actions in the presence of her co-workers, nor in the presence of any other employees or students.”
She seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
She is represented by Richard Matesic and Edward Olds.