Former Sullivan North teacher sues school system for $21M over mold

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A former teacher at Sullivan North High School has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the Sullivan County school system claiming he got sick due to mold inside the school. He also claims the school system endangered students by covering up a mold infestation issue. 

Michael Upchurch is seeking $3 million in compensatory damages and $18 million in punitive damages from the Sullivan County Department of Education. 

Upchurch, a former vocational teacher at Sullivan North, claims he had to resign in order to preserve his health. His lawsuit claims that mold inside the school contributed to long-term health problems. 

According to the lawsuit, Upchurch first got sick in January 2018 after he was moved into an upstairs classroom which hadn’t been used since May 2017. 

The following month, he says he discovered a black mold infestation in the space above the ceiling tiles in the classroom. 

According to Upchurch, he immediately removed his students from the classroom and reported the infestation to then-principal Brent Palmer. The lawsuit claims Palmer told Upchurch the mold would be taken care of.

The former teacher says he then sent ceiling tiles from the classroom to a lab for testing. He says those tests revealed moderate levels of black mold. 

Upchurch says when he brought his concerns to maintenance supervisor Charles Hubbard, he allegedly told him the “school roof leaked 30 years before he (Hubbard) taught there and he (Hubbard) never got sick.”

Later that month, according to to the suit, Upchurch was diagnosed with a compromised immune system, congestion around his heart, and hyperinflated lungs from either a fungal or viral infection. He was told to take a week off to recover, according to court records. 

During the following week, Upchurch says he displayed a variety of symptoms such as sneezing, headaches, nose bleeds, trouble breathing, coughing up blood and debris, etc. 

The lawsuit claims Upchurch returned to work on March 5 but was back in the hospital on March 12. 

The former teacher says the following week he drove a sample ceiling tile to a lab in South Carolina, which confirmed medium levels of black mold. 

Upchurch says he provided the lab test results to the Department of Education on March 26. The following day, school officials reportedly told him to file a workman’s compensation claim. 

According to the lawsuit, a company hired by SCDE tested the air inside classroom 1058 and found no black mold spores. However, the suit claims the company told school officials that black mold is hard to detect using air samples unless the mold is disturbed and becomes airborne. 

Upchurch says on April 8 the Allergy, Asthma, and Sinus Center confirmed he had a mold allergy.  

According to Upchurch, his workman’s comp and short-term disability claims were denied in June because recent air tests found no mold.  

When the 2018-2019 school year began, Upchurch says he noticed the school had been repainted and ceiling tiles replaced. He believes this was one of several attempts to cover up the school’s mold problem. 

Upchurch says he was assigned to the moldiest room in the school, where none of the ceiling tiles had been replaced. He claims he took his concerns to the new principal, Josh Davis, but was reportedly told there was no mold, just water damage on tiles. 

The lawsuit claims Upchurch was hospitalized for high blood pressure and elevated heart rate on February 2, 2019. 

According to Upchurch, three days later he met with Davis who told him there was no mold in the building and referred to him a “disgruntled employee.”

The lawsuit claims on February 7 heavy rain caused part of the school to flood. 

Upchurch says he showed a presentation to his class about mold and asbestos that included photos of black mold he took inside the school. 

During lunch, the lawsuit claims, an assistant principal and two Sullivan County deputies approached Upchurch and informed him the director of schools, Evelyn Rafalowski, wished to speak with him in an office. Upchurch says he went back to the shop instead because the office had mold. 

The lawsuit claims Rafalowski and Palmer met Upchurch in the shop and asked him to hand over the presentation he showed students. He says he refused and asked about ending his employment with SCDE.

Upchurch claims he was followed by a Sullivan County deputy on his way home.  

According to the lawsuit, on February 13, he sent more ceiling tile samples to a lab in Oak Ridge, which also found moderate levels of black mold. 

That’s the same day the school system notified parents it had found small amounts of black mold inside the school. North was closed that Thursday and Friday for cleaning. 

The lawsuit accuses the school system of failing to remediate contaminated property, intentionally concealing biohazardous exposure, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Upchurch claims the school system tried to cover up the mold issue by replacing the contaminated ceiling tiles. 

News Channel 11 reached out to BOE Chairman Michael Hughes about the lawsuit. Hughes said he was aware of the suit but had no comment. 

Click here to view the 24-page lawsuit.

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