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March 16, 2011

Fired Conductor Sues Vermont Youth Orchestra

FINAL GS VYO 3 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...

As a very successful artist who suffers from bi-polar disorder and a parent of two children who have participated in the VYOA, I am horrified and disgusted by the staff and board. There is a reason that bi-polar disorder is called the artist's disease. Throughout history very talented musicians, conductors and composers have suffered from this very treatable mental illness. That the VYOA could not see past their rather uninformed biases speaks volumes not only to their provincial attitudes, but more importantly has placed the entire organization at risk. I am embarrassed and deeply, deeply hurt.

Bi-polar or not, if you can't do the job, you can't do the job. And, further, if one is alleged to have sexually harassed a student, it is that person who puts the organization at risk, not the other way around. Sounds like the VYOA fears it could be facing a lawsuit from a student. Don't you remember the intense heat the the Morristown School District recently took for allegedly not disclosing the sexual misconduct allegations involving a teacher, even though the district had no direct evidence of that misconduct?

Glad you're very successful, though.

There was no complaint by a student, just by Carolyn Long, which is heresay.

And if there was any truth to the sexual harassment allegation then Carolne Whiddon would certainly not have fought for the retention of Braunstein.

"And if there was any truth to the sexual harassment allegation then Carolne Whiddon would certainly not have fought for the retention of Braunstein."

How do you know this to be true? This seems to be your assumption or opinion. Furthermore, do you personally know whether Ms. Whiddon has absolute, factual, and correct knowledge of whether the allegation is true or untrue? Just because Whiddon supports Braunstein does not mean, by itself, that the allegation is untrue. If you have personal, inside information that Whiddon is right and Long and the Board are not, please disclose it.

Also, you seem to be accusing Long, who is described above as being the founder of the VYOA and its music librarian and honorary member of the board, of being either a liar, a fool, or a gossipmonger. Is that REALLY your position?

If there were any truth to the allegation of sexual harassment, then why would the VYO have let Mr. Braunstein continue until January 31? If there was any shred of evidence he would have been let go on the spot, or at least placed on administrative leave until the allegation was investigated. The VYO didn't do this, so either they were negligent or they knew there was no truth to the allegation whatsoever.

Regarding CONSIDERTHEOTHERSIDEFORJUSTASECPLEASE's comment, "And, further, if one is alleged to have sexually harassed a student, it is that person who puts the organization at risk, not the other way around.," may I remind you that in this country one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

1) Vermont is a hire at will state, meaning anyone's job can be terminated "for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all." Proving wrongful termination is very, very difficult.

2) What did VYO accuse Mr. Braunstein of? We don't know exactly. Braunstein claims that he was accused of sexual harassment. That has not been established or publicly corroborated by VYO. We don't know exactly what VYO's motives in terminating him were. We can't evaluate their claims until (and unless) we know what they are.

3) Clearly all parties agree that Mr. Braunstein did SOMETHING inappropriate. One of his chief defenders acknowledged that his behavior created, "difficulties in the work environment." Should Braunstein be held to account for this behavior or can it all be blamed on mental illness?

Think about it this way -- an alcoholic has a disease. But he can't show up to work drunk and expect to keep his job. If he sobers up, he might not be able to get his job back.

Mr. Braunstein might be a fine conductor and a fine person. He might be working hard to get his life back together and get his disease under control. But his case against VYO appears to be pretty thin.

Re: CONSIDERTHEOTHERSIDEFORJUSTASECPLEASE: Who ever said he can't do the job? The concerts this year were the universally applauded, so he could in fact do the job as conductor and teacher. Whatever difficulties he had related to his bipolar could have been accomodated, but the VYOA didn't even try to accomodate him. That is a problem for them, not him. Had they even given Ms. Whiddon's suggestions a chance, perhaps they could have avoided this mess and not sullied a man's career and reputation.

As a parent of a VYO and VYP member it saddens me to think what this has and will continue to do to this organization. There is so much more to both sides of this situation and as much as we second guess what seems obvious, the bottom line is most of us don't know what happened and to start making armchair judgement calls is not a good thing for all parties concerned, especially the children of VYOA.

As a student who has been part of the VYOA for several years,I know that Mr. Braunstein's bipolar disorder was definitely NOT the only problem. There were MANY problems.
I know that Mrs. Long is neither a liar, nor a fool, nor a gossipmonger. IF she actually told the board that Mr. Braunstein sexually assaulted a student, there must have been some truth to it. But it seems likely that someone other than Mrs. Long could have started a rumor and Mr. Braunstein blamed her. This wouldn't be the first time he has been rude to her. During a rehearsal in December, he yelled at her, and after that she avoided going into the room in which the orchestra was rehearsing, even during 15-minute breaks halfway through the orchestra, because she knew he'd get mad at her. As far as I'm aware, no previous VYOA conductor has ever had any problems with anyone being in the room during a rehearsal (other than noisy VYP/Sinfonia kids during their breaks).
During the camp in August, Mr. Braunstein taught a conducting class to about 30 VYOA students, which took place every morning for an hour throughout the week. I was one of those students. One morning, he didn't show up. Later that day, the students who had chosen to take an oboe/bassoon/clarinet reed making class instead of the conducting class told the rest of the students that Mr. Braunstein had accidentally showed up in the room their class happened in, and the reed-making teacher had invited him to join the class. Mr. Braunstein learned how to make reeds for an hour, completely forgetting he was supposed to be teaching a class.
While the concerts between August and January were all very good, this was because all of the students are very good musicians. We also had over three months of weekly rehearsals, during which we barely played anything other than the Tchaikovsky symphony. A few hours before the January concert, we sight-read about two pages of music. We played the January concert's Mozart concerto for the first time less than two weeks before the concert. Normally, we rehearse every piece within the first few weeks of getting the music.
Since early February, when Mr. Domoto started, I've noticed that the orchestra members are generally much more prepared than we have been since Troy Peters left almost two years ago, even though the music programmed for the May concert is more challenging than the music we played before February. After over a year and a half of transitions, it finally feels like the organization is headed the right direction.

Re: One_Vermonter as to Vermont being an at will state. So are most employers in the nation. So if they had fired him "at will" then there would be no case. But they fired him "for just cause." This abrogates at will. They have to prove just cause, so he may have a case. And where do you get the idea that everyone agrees he did something inappropriate? I don't see that.

The fact that they let him go after his doctor said he was OK doesn't help his discrimination case, and I don't believe that identifying a reason for firing somebody trumps the at-will nature of employment. Wrongful termination suits are nearly impossible to win, anyway.

@ bi polar artist:

I asked that if you have any personal or inside information, you should disclose it. You haven't. You haven't even indicated that you have any such knowledge or information. Seems like you've just jumped to the conclusion that he's right and the VYOA board is wrong. Maybe you should heed the words of vyostudent above. As she points out, the fact that the concerts went well doesn't mean that he was doing the job. Perhaps there was more to his job responsibilities than just conducting?

@ vyoparent:

You don't need to remind me that one is innocent until proven guilty. May I remind you that that principle only applies to our criminal justice system? He isn't being criminally charged by the VYOA, only discharged from his job. They have the right to do that if they don't like the way he's doing his job. And may I also remind you that the VYO board knows what the facts are better than we do.

i'm a handicapped artist with clinical depression, type 1 diabetes, other physical issues, and in my opinion disabilities (as well as abilities!) need to be disclosed to potential employers up front. They should be told what the chances are of a seizure, or low blood sugar, or whatever incident might materialize given the potential employee's circumstance. neither should the employer feel blind sided by a "crisis," nor should the worker use their disclosed condition as an excuse for performance issues. i know nothing about the case here, but it does seem like there may have been a lack of communication early in the relationship.

The VYOA board told the parents in the parent meeting discussions that sexual harassment was never ever an issue with Mr Braunstein.

I don't know where that allegation is coming from a lawyers gambit perhaps?

The parents were emphatically assured that this was never the issue and if it had he would have been placed on leave immediately and unequivocally.

Please lay that nasty rumor an innuendo to rest now. The man is an incredibly gifted musician, I am sorry he has challenging issues with his physical chemistry and that the board and the staff couldn't see past the problem.

Most of the parents that I have spoken with understand his gift and were saddened to see him leave. His talent will shine regardless of this incident. I am certain that Ronald will grace the stage conducting orchestras and will continue to share his gifts and empower more musicians young and old a like.

"nor should the worker use their disclosed condition as an excuse for performance issues."

Very well said!

VYOSTUDENT said:
"While the concerts between August and January were all very good, this was because all of the students are very good musicians."

Actually, the quality of the musicians over the years has been fairly consistent. But the VYO had never sounded as good as when Braunstein conducted the October and December concerts. So you need to give him some credit.

I have a child who has been through many years in the VYO organization and is currently a member of the VYO. Not all VYO members agree with you about Braunstein, nor do they welcome the recent change of conductor. But since they realize the Board gives them no input into any of these decisions, they are making the best of the situation, and I applaud them.

"But the VYO had never sounded as good as when Braunstein conducted the October and December concerts."

In my opinion, the Poitiers concert in July of 2009 during the France tour sounded much better than the October 2009 concert. The music we play in December concerts is always much easier than most VYO music, because the December concerts each have much more limited rehearsal time.

"But since they realize the Board gives them no input into any of these decisions, they are making the best of the situation, and I applaud them."

The Board actually gives students some input. In early December, a few of the students organized a protest against the board's second decision to fire Mr. Braunstein, which resulted in the board agreeing to reconsider their decision again. After about another month, they made their third and final decision. The student officers (who are elected by the students every August during camp) also helped the board hire both Mr. Braunstein and Mr. Domoto.

As a VYO student, I think this is all a mess.

The ignorance on display in these comments is staggering. The comparison of Bi-Polar disorder to alcholism the lack of familiarity with how to deal with metal health issues in the workplace and the outright contradictions being spewed by the VYOA are examples. Two months ago in another paper the VYOA stated the issue was "a human resource" one. Now they claim it is "performance" related. The assertion that the VYO plays well under braunstein because of it's own "talent" is sheer fantasy, meant to reinforce the NEW allegations now desperately being put forth that Braunstein could not do his job. The notion that what Long says must be true is just childish as is the statement that Braunstein used his condition as an excuse, invented, again, in a vain attempt to create facts that don't actually exist.

The "NEW allegations now desperately being put forth that Braunstein could not do his job" are definitely not new. They just haven't been very publicized until now. And it seems extremely rediculous that anyone who knows Mrs. Long could believe that she started a fake rumor.

As a parent who has been actively involved in the VYOA for over 10 years, I have trusted this amazing organization with my child on international concert tours in Canada, China, and France where she has had incredible opportunities to learn, grow, and discover who she is. I have the utmost respect for this organization. The VYOA is truly a state treasure whose contribution to quality of the arts in our tiny state is the envy of other youth orchestras. The VYOA has graduated thousands of Vermont students, many of whom have gone on to become successful professional musicians. Allow this organization--its dedicated board members, its devoted staff, and especially its talented young musicians to heal from this unfortunate situation so they can continue to create their beautiful music. In difficult economic times, with new problems and tragedies in the world a daily occurrence, we need their music more than ever.

I am a VYO student, and I had neutral feelings about Mr. Braunstein. I did not dislike him to any extent, nor did I think he was the best music director for the VYOA. But I am almost disappointed that he would sue the VYOA. We are already having so many issues, I wish this could be solved without legal entanglements. It is almost selfish of him to want to take away money from such a strong organization that Vermont gets to call it's own. It saddens me that the VYOA is unraveling, because I've grown up in it, and it seems unfair that he is suing the organization that is so beloved to a state that he is merely a guest in.

As a VYO student who's grown up in the organization, I've never had a more musically gifted conductor than Mr. Braunstein. I was one of several students who stood by him through this whole painful, confusing process because based on what I could see--his music and his personality--I thought that with his leadership and talent the VYO could be better than it ever has been.

VYOSTUDENT, you can't deny that even our first concert at Reveille, one we had a week to prepare for, was beyond amazing, and it only got better from there. There were people in the orchestra who I'd cringe to listen to at the beginning of the season playing beautiful solos in the Tchaikovsky. It was not our own merit that made those concerts great. Even now, with the same group in the same season, I don't feel as connected to the orchestra, the conductor, or the music as I did when Mr. Braunstein was conducting.

This news, however, is shocking. I'm not quite sure what to think anymore. Carolyn Long is also somebody I admire and respect, and I can't see her spreading ugly rumors like the ones mentioned here. It's sad for me to see the way the organization has been falling apart over the past couple of years, and I'm having trouble reconciling the adults I've grown up respecting with the people I see slandering each other in the press.

"I'm having trouble reconciling the adults I've grown up respecting with the people I see slandering each other in the press."

Note that the VYO has not made any statements to the press. All of this information is being gleened from Mr. Braunstein's lawsuit.

"you can't deny that even our first concert at Reveille, one we had a week to prepare for, was beyond amazing"

I have no doubt that you are correct on this but I'm not sure that it's relevant. A youth orchestra's director is measured by more than the quality of the music produced. He also has to work well with the students, the other staff at VYO and be a good role model. It sounds like he was that for you. That's awesome. But that doesn't negate the possibility that his job performance was lacking in other areas.

as another former vyo participant who grew up in the organization, it is really not relevant what is perceived as "fair" in this case. yes, the vyoa has seen much better days, but if mr. braunstein's rights have indeed been trampled on, what is fair is for him to receive his due process. the leadership of the vyoa is responsible for protecting both their students and fulfilling their responsibilities to its employees. the fact that the vyoa is an organization that fills a cultural role in vermont should have nothing to do with the issue at hand. that being said, the vyoa has insurance against lawsuits for a reason, and i wouldn't worry about it hurting the organization financially.

@ former VYO-er:

"due process"

People throw this term around loosely. They need to understand what it actually is. It is a constitutional term meaning that a US citizen cannot have his or her CONSTITUTIONAL rights taken away arbitrarily (i.e., you can't have your house searched without a warrant, you can't be convicted of a crime without a trial, etc.). It does NOT apply to jobs in the private sector. No one has a constitutional right to be the music director of the VYO. There is no "due process" before one can be fired from any job in the private sector. The only rights any private sector employee has is: a) whatever procedures are specifically spelled out in their employment contract, and b) certain non-discrimination laws (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.).

Other than that, "due process" -- whatever you may mean by that term -- doesn't apply apply.

In addition, insurance doesn't always cover suits by a former employee against an employer, so it's possible that the VYO will have to pay out of its own treasury a lawyer to defend it against the lawsuit.

@Consider,

That's not really accurate, and really are we down to arguing semantics.

Due Process is a legal term defined as "The idea that laws and legal proceedings must be fair"

While it was used and primarily is associated with the Constitution it is not exclusive to it.

First: I think the VYO is strong and will remain strong. We now have a fabulous conductor who is leading students beautifully, and is much respected and appreciated, and is extremely qualified and skilled. We've been over some bumps recently, but it's clear we will get past them and continue to be the fabulous gem that we've been for so many years. I offer huge thanks to the volunteer board, all of whom I know have somewhat varied opinions on these issues, all of whom are extremely competent, but are volunteers working tirelessly for our kids through extremely difficult circumstances. Also huge thanks to Carolyn Long for so much over so many years. Even if her ONLY gift to the VYO were the example of an active and dedicated 92 year old woman coming early Sunday mornings to haul chairs and set up for youth orchestra, that is itself an eternal piece of gold for every student and parent who has known her and will continue to remember and treasure her energetic example as we age. And of course we know that wasn't her only gift.

My daughter was in the conducting class mentioned above, where Mr. Braunstein got distracted by a reed making class on the way and never showed up. She has also expressed concerns about sight reading a world premier piece by a featured composer on the day of the concert, and minimal rehearsal time for a friends' concerto. Sure the Tchaikowsky was well done - and it was great to hear a piece once again that was comparably well-played to what the VYO regularly played under Troy Peters - but the whole concert better? Not from what I've heard this past 6 years.

I've been an advocate for people with mental disabilities most of my life. But if a person can't remember from one minute to the next that 30 kids are waiting for them to arrive and teach a class, can we trust that person as the leader of 80 kids on tour in Europe? Please really think about that question - plus the fact that we know so little about the other information that the board has.

Again - the VYO IS an amazing organization. It has been for many, many years, and it IS RIGHT NOW and it will continue to be a fabulous, glorious gem for our state, our communities, our children, our families, and the future of classical music in this world. Many thanks to the board, Carolyn Long, and our new conductor/director Jeff Domoto for continuing the tradition!!!!

@ jcarter,

Sorry, but I'll stand by my position. Aside from anti-discrimination laws, due process does not apply to private sector employment. The only "process" you get is whatever process the organization voluntarily offers or what you negotiate in your employment contract. When the head of the company wants to fire you, you don't get to take his decision to a jury of your fellow employees (unless you negotiated that benefit into your contract).

That said, of course, it is only a matter of time before the Vermont legislature in its infinite socialist wisdom declares that private sector workers cannot be fired until an independent judge and jury decide whether the termination is "fair." After all, I have a fundamental human right to be employed by YOUR company, right?

If the VYO (or Long) really received a harassment complaint then they were negligent not to remove Braunstein IMMEDIATELY without allowing him to have any further contact with the VYO's minors. If there was any doubt at all about the situation, he should have been placed on leave pending investigation and not allowed the opportunity for access that could further endanger the minors of the orchestra.

If the VYO allowed him to continue to work with students under an allegation like that, they have bigger problems than a work grievance lawsuit. Endangerment of a minor is a serious offense.

This would seem to substantiate Braunstein's assertion that the harassment claim against him was manufactured to expediate the Board's foregone decision to let him go, for their own reasons which still have not been revealed.

It is simply implausible that the VYO would have let him continue to work with the students with that allegation having been leveled against him.

Can anyone imagine Braunstein actually going back to conduct VYO after all this?

@Consider,

Oh, I don't disagree... I was only speaking to the term. It is not solely a constitutional term. Yes, in this state you can fire a person at will. When there is any type of situation it only serves to provide fodder and discussion for internet message boards. I suppose you could file suit if you had proof someone fired you over race or sexual orientation, etc. But you would need undisputable proof, an e-mail blantantly spelling it out. In this case, from what I know there is none. And, legally speaking the guy was fired, reason is irrelevant.

If he didn't tell them of his condition until the day they fired him I don't think they are guilty of discrimination. He should have told his employeer from the start that he needed some accommodations.
Having worked with someone just like this, I can say it is very difficult, especially when they are not willing to be honest upfront.

As a bi-polar reader, I'd like to offer my opinion:
He should be fired.
I mean he should be hired.

Here's a question I haven't seen any thing mentioned... does the man have any proof he is bi-polar? It seems its something would have been known BEFORE he got fired, and something that would be very easily verified. If he was diagnosised as bi-polar, there has to be a medical record somewhere.

Regardless, his behavior is very clearly odd. The showering scenario brings up some concerns. I would certainly be calling for him to resign if my two girls were under his supervision under such a situation, along with the comments, provided they are all not from a single source. While they are not proof adults in charge of the supervision of children require trust. It's clear there are people whom do not trust him. Case closed.

To JCarter: There is proof Mr. Braunstein is bipolar. He was on lithium and the complaint states that medical records from his doctor were provided to the Board. When a bipolar person's medications are not adjusted properly they can exhibit the kinds of behaviors thought by laypersons to be "eccentric" and "inappropriate." When they are in good control they are not like that necessarily. Also lithium toxicity can cause memory and concentration issues and the complaint documents he was toxic. BTW, a bipolar is under NO obligation to disclose his condition prior to employment. This is per the ADA. If the VYOA seriously believed he was a danger to its students they would not have left him on staff, teaching and conducting, for 4 months after his termination notice.

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