Judge to determine if attorney’s actions impacted Claudio discrimination decision

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Former Mattituck teacher Anthony Claudio leaving court during the trial last fall.

The federal judge overseeing former Mattituck-Cutchogue special education teacher Anthony Claudio’s discrimination suit against the school district admonished Mr. Claudio’s attorney in court Friday for his conduct during the trial, which ended in October when a jury awarded Mr. Claudio $70,000 in back pay. 

During post-trial oral arguments before United States District Court Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip, school district attorney Jeltje DeJong of Smithtown asked the court to overturn the Oct. 22 jury verdict — which found the district discriminated against Mr. Claudio, 50, based on his age when it terminated him in 2009 — because she believes the plaintiff’s attorney, Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, made numerous accusations without providing proof that the district committed fraud in denying Mr. Claudio tenure.

Judge Bianco described Ms. DeJong’s summary of Mr. Blangiardo’s actions during the course of the trial as “accurate” and said he had to warn Mr. Blangiardo “many, many times”  about “injecting issues or engaging in conduct that wasn’t relevant to the case.”

Some of Mr. Blangiadro’s efforts that the judge described as a “constant issue” included attempting to distract jurors by hinting at a prior lawsuit against the district, using the term “we” that could have been interpreted by the jury that he had personal knowledge of the case, improperly questioning witnesses and making gestures or rolling his eyes during their testimony.

“That was a disservice to your client,” the judge told Mr. Blangiardo Friday. “When a lawyer continues to do something he was told not to do is problematic.”

Mr. Blangiardo described those actions as harmless and said he didn’t believe it gave the jury the impression that he had insider information.

He also argued that he followed an order to not discuss his claim that Mr. McKenna was required by the school board to undergo sensitivity training at BOCES after allegedly “publishing an anti-Semitic comment” once the judge ruled it wasn’t relevant to the case.

“I was instructed not to go there and I didn’t,” Mr. Blangiardo said.

In addition to determining if Mr. Blangiardo’s actions impacted the jury’s decision, Judge Bianco said he will also determine if the district should reinstate Mr. Claudio.

Although Ms. DeJong argued that Mr. Claudio shouldn’t be reinstated because the district found him incapable of teaching special education when it terminated him, the judge said he has been vindicated because a jury found the district discriminated against him.

When Ms. DeJong added there aren’t any teacher position openings in the district’s special education department, Mr. Blangiardo’s said his client is certified to teach in any available position in grades pre-K through 12th grade.

“He’s willing to take any of those positions,” he said.

Mr. Claudio is also seeking legal costs and “front pay,” a form of compensation for victims of discrimination who aren’t able to find comparable employment, from the district if it fails to rehire him.

The judge made no decisions Friday and said he’s in the process reviewing all of the post-trial motions.

Read more about Friday’s oral arguments in the Feb. 21 issue of The Suffolk Times.

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