Canonsburg man sues Cal U. over National Guard duty

Claims school withdrew employment offer

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Already a full-time physical therapist and a part-time instructor at California University of Pennsylvania, Zackary Dawson decided to join the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2011.

On Thursday he sued the university, claiming that the training assignments he was ordered to complete for the Guard prompted Cal U administrators to show him the door.

School officials told him "they couldn't risk going another semester because of my military obligations," said Lt. Dawson, 28, of Canonsburg. That rationale, according to his attorney, Timothy P. O'Brien, violated federal and state laws.

"A promise has been made to those folks who have chosen to honorably serve this country in the military," Mr. O'Brien said. "The promise that we have made is that ... their jobs are protected" and are available when they return.

"If [the state] can get away with [violating that promise], who can't?" he said.

Lt. Dawson said he earned two undergraduate degrees at California, then a doctorate in physical therapy from Chatham University. In 2010 he began practicing therapy by day and teaching one course at California at night. He was named California University's 2010 Health Sciences Alumnus of the Year, Mr. O'Brien said.

He joined the Guard, and in December 2011 was appointed as a medical officer. That led to a two-week medical support stint at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation in September 2012, followed by the one-month officer training in Texas in November.

There was talk at California University of bringing Lt. Dawson on full time, the complaint said, and on Dec. 1 the school offered him another part-time teaching contract, which he signed.

But six weeks later, according to the complaint, Lt. Dawson got an email from Thomas West, the director of the graduate athletic training education program, saying that his "'services teaching in the department' were not needed for the spring semester," and "falsely" attributing that to "student complaints."

Mr. O'Brien said that isn't consistent with Lt. Dawson's evaluation ratings, which were 9.5 out of 10. The lawsuit filed in Washington County Court of Common Pleas said the decision not to renew the contract was discrimination under the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and violated state wrongful discharge laws.

California University spokeswoman Christine Kindl said that the university had not yet seen the complaint and added that the school doesn't usually comment on litigation. Mr. West could not be reached for comment.

Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the State System of Higher Education of which California is a member, also declined comment on the lawsuit. However, he said "there are both state and federal laws that protect the rights of military personnel who are deployed and we follow those [laws]. We go beyond that. We provide veterans preference hiring."

The complaint named as defendants the university, Mr. West and gerontology program director Mary Hart and demanded damages for embarrassment and distress, as well as punitive damages and a return to teaching. Ms. Hart could not be reached for comment.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. Bill Schackner contributed. First Published April 18, 2013 2:45 PM


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