May 30, 2012

Discrimination Suits Against City of Ithaca May Proceed, Judges Say

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In the closing weeks of February 2009, Ithaca Police Chief Ed Vallely reportedly summoned Sgt. Douglas Wright to his office. Vallely needed to appoint someone to the highly-coveted position of lieutenant, and Wright was known to want the job.

Wright had reason to be optimistic. He joined the IPD in 1992, was apparently told by the former IPD chief that the post would eventually be his, and, unlike his competition, had never been accused of aiding drug dealers.

But Vallely had other plans in mind. At the meeting, Vallely allegedly told Wright, a white officer, that he had to prove that he was a better candidate than Marlon Byrd, a black officer, to get the appointment, according to a discrimination lawsuit recently filed by Wright against the City of Ithaca, the IPD and several city officials.

“I need to show clear and convincing evidence why you are the better candidate; otherwise, I have to promote Marlon,” Vallely said at the meeting, according to Wright.

He did so in early March, making Byrd a lieutenant despite “evidence of serious criminal allegations” against Byrd, Wright claims. Sworn testimony from 2008 to 2011 indicates that several IPD officers believed Byrd was tipping off drug dealers, according to The Ithaca Journal, though these claims have been disputed.

Citing this incident and others, Wright has alleged in a $10.5-million lawsuit that the IPD and City of Ithaca promote policies that “subject male Caucasian employees to greater scrutiny … and treat them as second class citizens.” Earlier this month, Judge Gary Sharpe ruled that the case could proceed, rejecting most of the city’s arguments in its attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed.

His decision follows the ruling of Judge Michael Telesca, who in April also ruled that a separate discrimination case against the city could proceed.

In that case, former city firefighter Mark Hassan argues that he faced discrimination within the Ithaca Fire Department. In the suit, he says he has been called, among other terms, a “‘towel head’ and ‘dune coon’ and portrayed as prone to violence.” Hassan was fired from the department in 2011 and argues his dismissal was a retaliatory measure against him for raising discrimination claims.

On April 9, Telesca ruled that Hassan “has plausibly alleged claims of employment discrimination and a hostile work environment.”

“At this stage, the court finds that plaintiff’s allegations are sufficient to plausibly allege [Hassan’s] claims of discrimination,” Telesca’s decision states.

But Telesca did throw out certain parts of Hassan’s complaints — one, that the discrimination he purportedly faced amounted to an abridgement of first amendment rights, and, two, that the firefighter’s union breached its duty of representation.

Similarly, not all the allegations put forth by Wright in his discrimination suit were permitted by the judge. For instance, Wright claims that his wife, Melissa Wright, was “deprived of her husband’s comfort” due to the city’s discrimination — a claim dismissed by the judge.

The cases are just two of the four discrimination lawsuits being fought by the city. In a $3-million lawsuit filed this March, former city housing inspector Ramon Santana claimed that he was discriminated against, while in a recently filed $17-million suit IPD officer Chris Miller contested that he faced harsher discipline than his non-white colleagues.

Taken together, the lawsuits could do significant fiscal harm to an already cash-strapped city. Despite the judges’ rulings, Ithaca’s lawyers have issued vigorous defenses of its policies and its officials’ conduct in both the Wright and Hassan cases.

For instance, in petitioning the judge to dismiss the case, the city’s lawyers say that, even if true, Wright’s allegations do not amount to a racial discrimination claim. Wright was also the second-highest paid employee in the Ithaca police and fire departments in the recent pay period, pulling in more than $100,000, according to SeeThroughNY.net, a non-profit organization that gathers information about government expenditures in New York State.“Wright has alleged that on two occasions, he was not promoted and that black officers were promoted. He states no purported facts to support his assertion that his race was the reason for these events,” the city’s lawyers state. “The only purported facts pled to support his claims is the assertion that black candidates were promoted instead of himself.”

Likewise, the city’s lawyers contest in their defense brief that Hassan’s allegations do not constitute discrimination.

“The lack of any alleged factual nexus between the alleged stray comments and the discipline imposed on [Hassan] is fatal to his claims,” the brief states. “Vague assertions that certain epithets have been used — mostly by unspecified individuals at unspecified times over the course of plaintiff’s 10-year tenure with the city — do nothing to suggest that the discipline imposed on Plaintiff was discriminatory, and indeed constitute nothing more than a springboard for a disgruntled employee to continue harassing his employers and co-workers with a frivolous lawsuit.”

Original Author: Jeff Stein

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