Last week we reported that Erie Community College President Jack Quinn had fired off a confidential letter to the board and others, warning the college's financial situation was deteriorating and as a result emergency belt-tightening measures would be required to keep the school from "disrupting its core mission," and in the near future it would not be "business as usual."
The letter comes despite the high-priced administration that runs the college, including Quinn and in-house counsel Kristin Klein-Wheaton who heads a $300,000 legal staff and has great say in the day-to-day operations of the college, according to informed sources.
Now we have learned that ECC has another problem: a federal human rights lawsuit against the college that singles out Klein-Wheaton for age discrimination and retaliation against 62-year-old former Human Resources Commissioner Eileen Flaherty, who was terminated last April without warning while on medical leave.
In the suit filed March 13 in federal court, Flaherty alleges that almost immediately after Klein-Wheaton was hired in February of 2011, "she allegedly began to discriminate and retaliate against Plaintiff (Flaherty) as a result of Plaintiff's age, disability and need for leave."
Flaherty had been promoted to director of Human Resources in January of 2008 after serving as assistant director since 2004. In the lawsuit, Flaherty said she had been an exemplary employee who performed the material duties of her position in a competent and professional manner, receiving numerous awards and accolades as well as merit increases, and had never received a poor evaluation or written warning. But according to the suit she filed, that all changed after Klein-Wheaton arrived.
Beginning in 2009, Flaherty struggled with a small bowel obstruction and later was diagnosed with degenerative arthritis requiring hip replacement. In December of 2013 she suffered a disc displacement as a result of a fall at work. She required multiple surgeries to treat her medical issues and it necessitated her absence from work at times to deal with her health.
The lawsuit characterizes her as an individual with a disability under the meaning of the New York State Human Rights Law, and that despite the limitations resulting from her disability she was still able to perform the essential functions of her job.
The suit alleges that the much-younger Klein-Wheaton became Flaherty's supervisor after she was hired in 2011 and began the alleged pattern of discrimination including "failing to accommodate her requests for time off and retaliating against her by subjecting her to increased scrutiny, harassment, discipline, and ultimately terminating her employment."
Flaherty said she complained to ECC's president (Quinn) and the board of trustees who informed her that her performance was fully satisfactory and her employment was not in jeopardy. But despite her complaints, the school failed to investigate or take appropriate action and she was ultimately terminated without warning and replaced by a younger male.
Flaherty's lawsuit seeks back pay, front pay, and compensatory damages. Also, interest, costs and disbursements accrued and owing on the amount and other relief as determined by the court.
In her court papers, it is alleged that Flaherty, in addition to lost compensation, suffered damage to her reputation and career and severe and lasting embarrassment, humiliation and anguish, and other incidental damages and expenses.
Michael Farrell, ECC's public information officer, emailed the following response to my request for comment: "ECC is committed, by policy and practice, to a diverse workforce free from discrimination and harassment. We take seriously all allegations pertaining to our work environment, and we thoroughly investigate all workforce complaints. We are confident that ECC had the procedures in place to ensure fair and equitable treatment in the circumstances, and we look forward to the opportunity to prove that in court. We take this matter seriously and plan a vigorous defense."
Flaherty is represented by Andrea Sammarco of the Sammarco law firm of Buffalo. ECC almost certainly will retain outside counsel to represent the college given the obvious conflict of the in-house legal team headed by Klein-Wheaton.