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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Abrupt firing of Disability Rights Wisconsin attorney has parents and advocates worried
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Spitzer-Resnick: '[Masseau] has put the agency and its clients at risk.'
Spitzer-Resnick: '[Masseau] has put the agency and its clients at risk.'
Credit:Carolyn Fath

The evening of Sept. 21, Tom Masseau emailed the board of Disability Rights Wisconsin to inform members that attorney Jeff Spitzer-Resnick was no longer employed with the agency. Masseau gave no reason for the departure, saying only that the agency wished Spitzer-Resnick -- a 17-year veteran of the agency who worked on high-profile special education cases -- the best and thanked him "for his years many [sic] of service with DRW."

Earlier that day Masseau, who has been executive director of Disability Rights Wisconsin since January, met with Spitzer-Resnick and fired him on the spot. When asked why he was being immediately terminated, Spitzer-Resnick says Masseau gave him two reasons: "We don't get along" and the "tone of your emails."

Masseau said he could not comment on personnel matters. Ditto for Jeff Timm, president of the Disability Rights Wisconsin board.

Disability Rights Wisconsin is a federally mandated advocacy organization and public-interest law firm. Its mission is to "advocate vigorously on behalf of the human and legal rights of people with disabilities." The Wisconsin agency has offices in Madison, Milwaukee and Rice Lake and employs just under 60 people.

Based in Madison, Spitzer-Resnick was the managing attorney for the schools and civil rights team. He was co-counsel on a long-running class action suit against the Milwaukee Public Schools over its treatment of students with special needs and led a long battle to help pass a state law that restricts the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint of children with disabilities. He was also representing families in Appleton, where special education teacher Mary Berglund is accused of physically abusing six disabled students at the school.

Spitzer-Resnick says that his abrupt dismissal has left colleagues scrambling and that scheduled depositions on the Appleton case had to be canceled.

"DRW is mandated by federal law to help these families and others, and now people are wondering how it can do that," says Chris Thomas-Cramer, a policy analyst for the Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, which advocates for systemic changes that help people with disabilities.

"I've been an advocate for people with disabilities for over 20 years, and I find Jeff's firing to be incomprehensible on so many levels," adds Thomas-Cramer, who notes she is not speaking on behalf of her agency. "Jeff was an extremely effective advocate for individuals and families, and he collaborated with other advocates to effect change."

"[Masseau] has put the agency and its clients at risk," says Spitzer-Resnick.

Masseau says that is not true: "There is no disruption in the cases. They're ongoing."

And he says his agency will continue to provide legal representation and education and fight for the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Board president Timm agrees there is no cause for alarm: "I don't think any client needs to worry, is my bottom line."

Spitzer-Resnick's firing has provoked a storm on social media. His Facebook post announcing his dismissal brought more than 100 comments from supporters. One fan, Linda Rowley -- who was on Spitzer-Resnick's hiring committee -- made her own Facebook appeal, asking people concerned about his firing to contact Masseau and the board of directors. His former colleagues are also planning a recognition and roast on Oct. 22 at the Goodman Center.

Becky Kostopolus of Appleton is concerned about the fate of the complaint Spitzer-Resnick filed with the Department of Public Instruction on behalf of her 14-year-old son, who has autism. She says Spitzer-Resnick worked hard for years to get the school district to provide appropriate programming for her son.

"[His] knowledge and experience in special education law cannot easily be replaced," she says.

Spitzer-Resnick acknowledges that he did not get along well with Masseau, who before coming to Wisconsin was director of government and media relations for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service. And he knows that his complaints about Masseau could look like sour grapes since he, too, applied for the agency's top spot when longtime executive director Lynn Breedlove stepped down after 31 years at the helm.

But Spitzer-Resnick says he offered to resign effective Dec. 24 when he met with Masseau so that there could be an orderly transition of his duties to others. Masseau, he says, turned him down.

Spitzer-Resnick says that he had "17 years of excellent evaluations" and that his firing violates the agency's own personnel policies, "which require a warning and corrective action plan, prior to termination, other than in dangerous or criminal behavior."

He says he is talking to an attorney about possible legal action. He might also make a run for a Madison school board seat in April.

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