Ex-dean sues Oakland Schools, alleges wrongful firing over virus; district says he was reckless

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A former dean at Oakland Schools who contracted COVID-19 is suing the intermediate school district, alleging he was forced to work in-person during the pandemic and was fired after reporting an outbreak at one of its campuses.

Charles Locklear, 60, served as dean of Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northwest in Clarkston for 21 years and says he was placed on administrative leave in October and terminated in February, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Oakland Circuit Court.

In the suit, Locklear alleges he and others administrators at four technical school campuses in Oakland County were forced to work in person at the start of the academic year in violation of state and county orders, while central office staff were allowed to work remotely and the Oakland Schools board conducted meetings virtually.

Locklear alleges he reported multiple COVID cases at the Northwest Campus to Oakland Schools’ officials in September and October and that Oakland Schools did not take any steps to quarantine employees or move to remote work for instructors and staff there.

Locklear, a diabetic, says he tested positive for COVID on Oct. 14 after being in the office. He alleges Oakland Schools did not take steps to quarantine or move to remote work after he and multiple staffers came down with the virus.

The lawsuit alleges that three weeks after six COVID cases were reported at the campus, staffers were informed they could work from home. Two of those employees were hospitalized for their COVID symptoms, the suit says. 

Locklear, who says he unknowingly gave the virus to his wife, daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren including a newborn, says he was ready to return to work on Oct. 27 but was placed on administrative leave the day before pending an investigation of unprofessional conduct.

Dandridge Floyd, an assistant superintendent of human resources at Oakland Schools, said the Oakland Schools board voted unanimously to accept the superintendent's recommendation to terminate Locklear for unprofessional conduct.

"Such conduct included recklessly disregarding safety rules and procedures implemented to protect employees against COVID and providing false information to health officials impacting their ability to properly trace potential COVID exposure," Floyd said. "This termination followed a thorough investigation during which Mr. Locklear was placed on paid administrative leave."

The district says Locklear reported to work Oct. 12 and completed the daily health screening tool saying he was not experiencing COVID symptoms, but an investigation determined he was "visibly exhibiting COVID symptoms" as he met with employees and traveled throughout the NW campus on that day.

"According to the investigation, you then told the Oakland County Health Department epidemiologist contact tracer that on October 12, 2020 you remained in your office alone all day and never had contact with any individuals the entire time you were at work," the district said.

"Relying upon this false statement, the Oakland County Health Department did not conduct contact tracing and advised Oakland Schools further quarantine was not necessary. Unfortunately, individuals who were in close contact to you during your contagious period were not contacted to quarantine."

Floyd said Oakland Schools made the decision to bring staff back onsite, saying "the OSTC’s are technical campuses, and our curriculum revolves around significant hands-on instruction. For employees who self-identified as being in a vulnerable population, we offered multiple accommodations including remote work options."

Locklear's attorney Jason Hirsch said there was no evidence of misconduct.

"They behaved this way because Locklear was reporting these cases and for whatever reason they did not want to go to remote work," Hirsch said. "They didn’t want them quarantined or to shift to remote work even though they knew there were symptoms and positive tests. The overwhelming majority of this work could have been done remotely."

The lawsuit alleges Oakland Schools violated Locklear's contract, which says he can be fired only for just cause; violated the governor's order to perform work remotely; discriminated against Locklear because of his age; and retaliated against him in violation of the state's Whistleblower Protection Act.