Lawyer suing Fairport school district over alleged eavesdropping
A Brockport lawyer who thinks a Fairport Central School District administrator and the school district’s attorney may have listened in on a private conversation with her client is suing the school district, the school official and the Buffalo attorney she claims left a listening device in a conference room.
Susan Burgess filed suit Nov. 9 in U.S. District Court for the Western District in Rochester. Joining her is Carmen Coleman of Fairport, a client Burgess represented last year in negotiations on special education needs for her child, a student in the Fairport Central School District.
Burgess and Coleman are seeking a trial and compensatory and punitive damages.
The taping issue stems from an incident on Aug. 4, 2006. Coleman had filed a complaint against the district and was seeking an impartial hearing. She and Burgess met to discuss a possible settlement on Aug. 4. At that meeting was Kevin Ratcliffe, administrator of pupil services, and Jay Pletcher, an attorney with the Buffalo firm of Goldstein, Ackerhalt and Pletcher.
Burgess claims Pletcher told them he would take a proposed settlement offer she had prepared to discuss it with Ratcliffe.
But, Burgess said, before he left the room, Pletcher placed a personal digital assistant that included a telephone on a table near the two women.
Burgess said she believes she and Coleman were illegally taped with the device.
Burgess said she thinks Pletcher dialed Ratcliffe’s office telephone before meeting with her and Coleman which later allowed Pletcher and Ratcliffe to hear their conversation in Ratcliffe’s office for at least 25 minutes. That, she says, is a violation of their civil rights.
“The allegations in the complaint are pure fantasy with no basis in reality,” said Charles Swanekamp of the Buffalo law firm Jaeckle Fleischmann and Mugel, which represents Pletcher and his firm. “My client has not been formerly served yet, but we intend to vigorously defend and to seek a dismissal in as timely a fashion as possible.”
Burgess acknowledged she has yet to serve the defendants, which also include Pletcher’s firm, the school district and the Fairport Board of Education. The latter are named as being responsible for supervising Ratcliffe.
“The district regards the suit as substantially without merit,” said East Syracuse attorney Frank Miller, who represents the district’s board of education and Ratcliffe. Miller said a response will be filed at an appropriate time.
Asked why she thinks her private conversation with Coleman may have been overheard, Burgess said she and Coleman thought it was odd that Pletcher would
leave behind his personal digital assistant and then pick it up and put it back in his pocket when the conference was over.
“It seemed very deliberate,” she said, noting she and Coleman also thought it appeared as though Ratcliffe had anticipated Coleman’s subsequent questions, when discussions resumed, on things Burgess said had only been discussed when the two women were alone.
Burgess said she believes the district may have eavesdropped in retaliation for
Coleman filing the initial complaint in regards to her child’s educational needs.
She said she couldn’t discuss details of that matter, but that a settlement was reached for last school year and that it’s no longer an issue.
Burgess notified the district a year ago of her intent to file a complaint, as required by law for bringing suits against a government body. At the time, she also faxed Pletcher a letter, asking him to voluntarily supply his cell phone records for calls on Aug. 4, 2006.
Burgess said she never received the copies.
“If there was eavesdropping by one attorney on the confidential conversations of another, it’s something that can’t be overlooked in my opinion because it’s too serious,” Burgess said.
Denise M. Champagne can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 352, or at dchampagne@mpnewspapers. com.