Fired Conductor Sues Vermont Youth Orchestra | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Fired Conductor Sues Vermont Youth Orchestra


Published March 16, 2011 at 3:08 p.m.

Why did the Vermont Youth Orchestra fire its conductor last November?

That question has remained unanswered since the nonprofit group terminated Ronald Braunstein at the end of last year. Media reports at the time never explained the exact nature of the board's issues with Braunstein, who was hired just few months before he was let go.

Now Braunstein is suing the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association and its founder, Carolyn Long, for libel, slander, "breach of implied contract" and discrimination. The lawsuit, which was just made public, sheds light on what led to Braunstein's dramatic dismissal, including allegations he sexually harassed a student — which the conductor flatly denies — and problems arising from Braunstein's bipolar disorder.

Braunstein's legal complaint states that on November 11, he told the board he suffers from bipolar disorder. The revelation followed an episode of "lithium toxicity" on November 6 that required emergency treatment at a hospital. Braunstein also disclosed that he had had "difficulties functioning at work because of complications in adjusting his levels of lithium."

VYOA executive director Caroline Whiddon accompanied Braunstein to the emergency room, according to the complaint. Whiddon, who had previously announced she was leaving the organization, also "made clear her willingness to work with Mr. Braunstein during her remaining four months to address any remaining difficulties in the work environment caused by the disorder and the problems in adjusting the lithium level."

Other members of the staff, however, did not want to continue working with Braunstein, according to the complaint. One email to Whiddon dated October 11 stated: "Everyone feels like they are working with a man who has a mental illness and we don't know how to work with that."

In his suit, Braunstein is charging that the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association "acted in willful and wanton disregard of the requirements of the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act," and that the VYOA wrongfully terminated him because of a disability.

The libel and slander charges involve a sexual harassment allegation attributed to Long, VYO music librarian and honorary member of the board, according to the suit. After a weeklong music camp with VYO students and faculty, and a successful concert at the Flynn Center, Long allegedly began telling board members and parents that Braunstein had sexually harassed a student.

On November 11, Board Chair John Davis and another unnamed board member gave Braunstein a letter of termination. "The letter and oral statements informed Mr. Braunstein that the Board had found just cause for dismissal," according to the complaint. His service ended on January 31 of last year.

The contents of the termination and its offered settlement were provided to staff members and to "one or more donors," according to the suit. Braunstein asserts that the board "was recklessly indifferent to the truth of its claim that just cause for dismissal existed."

On November 12, Whiddon and Braunstein each sent an email to the board asking for him to be retained, and explaining that the bipolar disorder had stabilized. Whiddon also met with the staff to explain this and to ask them, the complaint reads, to "work with her to enable Mr. Braunstein to continue to serve as Music Director."

Later that month, Braunstein provided a letter from his physician and some of his medical records to the board. But two weeks later, the board chair sent an email "to hundreds of VYO donors, students and family members of students" explaining that Braunstein was leaving. No explanation was given.

The board has already hired another musical director, Jeff Domoto.

Braunstein's complaint states that the VYOA's "unlawful discrimination" caused him personal humiliation and damage to his professional reputation, as well as incurring past and future attorney's fees and loss of income.

Braunstein is seeking "reinstatement, restitution, compensatory damages, punitive damages, interest, costs and fees and trial by jury as to his claims for damages."

More on this story as it develops...

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