February 11, 2004

ILR Sued for Alleged Bias, Labor Practices

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Two former ILR extension employees filed discrimination complaints with the District Court of the Southern District of New York early last December, sparking a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the University. The complaints accuse Cornell, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and individuals within the state-endowed school for making personnel decisions on the basis of age and gender.

In her complaint to the court, former Senior Extension Associate II Peggy Leibowitz ’73 claims that the University demoted, and then terminated her from a tenured-position because of her age and gender. Leibowitz is seeking more than $1.9 million due to the full value of her contract and other damages, including pay for months which she worked.

Charging the University in a separate claim, former senior extension associate II and director of the ILR extension office in Long Island, Thomas Germano said that members of the University administration harassed him for two and a half years to retire because of his age.

Germano’s complaint did not contain a specific suit value, but the “damages are significant,” according to David Marek, an attorney representing both former employees. Marek and senior partner Jeffrey Liddle ’71 are both from the Liddle & Robinson law firm.

Named defendants in both suits include Edward Lawler, dean of the ILR school, Ronald Seeber, former associate dean of the ILR school and current executive director of the Institute on Conflict Resolution and Ann Martin, former associate dean of the ILR extension and current senior extension associate II. Esta Bigler, director of the ILR School New York City Extension and Prof. Nick Salvatore, ILR, are also defendants in Leibowitz’s suit.

“While I will not comment on the personnel decisions at issue, I will say that the claims are wholly without merit,” Lawler said and declined to comment any further. Martin and Bigler also did not comment.

Leibowitz has taught labor law on the Ithaca campus, but started her Cornell career in the New York City extension office. In May 2000, she became the first Extension member to receive the MacIntyre Award for Exemplary Teaching and she later co-taught a seminar with Judge Harry Edwards of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

In 1987, Leibowitz was promoted to senior extension associate II after the extension’s peer review process recommended her to the dean of extension. The complaint claims that Seeber, who was an associate dean at the time, told her this new position also granted her the equivalency of tenure, and she could only be fired because of “budgetary exigencies” — when the school was not able to continue paying her salary.

Leibowitz claimed that between 1997 and 1998, the University administration displayed gender bias when they denied her the opportunity to interview for the director of management-labor relations studies position — a job she held on a temporary basis for over a year between 1995 and 1996.

When finally given an interview, the complaint claims that Seeber “aggressively shouted” at Leibowitz and said he could not give her a job because of her “disloyalty to Cornell” and “her inability to get along with colleagues.” Leibowitz, who worked almost 25 years for the University, received the interview after colleagues “insisted” that she be granted a chance. The male applicant who was eventually chosen left his position only two months after starting.

“They wouldn’t interview me for a job they had given me to do,” Leibowitz said. “I worked in that program since 1978 … I never said ‘no’ to any assignment they gave me.”

Leibowitz, who was 50 years old at the time, was then informed by Lawler on July 1, 2002 that her employment was being terminated because of “budgetary exigencies this year.” Although he offered her an adjunct instructor position, Salvatore did not allow Leibowitz to resume teaching residence classes or continue her work with corporate clients in the extension offices, even though she had years of experience. She was also not offered another contract.

“I had no reason to think my contract was not being renewed,” she said. “I had been there in times in the ILR extension when we were in a real fiscal crisis. I was an academic downsizing of one.”

In December 2002, state law required that the University offer an early retirement package to Leibowitz. She accepted the package at the last minute for the sole reason of protecting her children’s college entitlement and family health insurance that came with the University’s retirement plan.

“When I [accepted the package], I felt I was doing it under duress,” Leibowitz said. “I took the early retirement package at the very last moment because I was hoping Dean Lawler would reverse his position.”

Her complaint claims that the University replaced Leibowitz with younger employees and additionally, five clerical employees, who were also terminated a few months later for “budgetary exigencies,” were females above 40 years old. Leibowitz claims she was the only academic individual who was laid off in this time period. In May 2003, Leibowitz was the first ILR extension faculty member to receive a Merrill Presidential Teaching Award from the University.

During the same time period, Germano attempted to hire Leibowitz to the Long Island office he was managing at the time. However, on Jan. 13 of last year, Seeber and Lawler presented a letter which terminated his employment for “a breach of responsibilities,” even though the office was consistently ahead of his budget projections and there were no complaints about his work, according to Germano.

Germano started working for the University in October 1976 and mainly worked in Long Island, where he “received excellent performance reviews from his students, the unions, management workshop participants and his superiors at Cornell and in the ILR School,” according to the complaint.

Germano said his sacking was the end of over two years of attacks by the University, after he worked for Cornell for almost 30 years. In his complaint, he claims that beginning in 2000, the University, mainly through Martin, applied “constant pressure, threats and harassment regarding [Germano’s] age.” Germano also passed the peer review process in 1988, also granting him virtual tenure according to the document.

The complaint notes that on Nov. 2, 2000, Martin spoke with Germano at a hotel in New York. The brief states that Martin “asked him how old he was and if he had plans to retire.” Germano then asked if his performance was in question. Martin responded that even though his work was solid, it was time for him to retire.

“[They asked] why don’t you retire?” Germano said. “When I would ask why, they would say, ‘Because it’s time.’ They would never give a legitimate reason.”

During the next two years, the complaint outlines four other meetings in which Martin presented the idea of retirement. On Dec. 5, 2001, Germano was left out of a meeting discussing the future of the Long Island office and on Dec. 18, 2001, Martin threatened to break the lease and close the Long Island office if Germano did not retire.

Even at a Jan. 12, 2002 conference with his other colleagues, when Martin again brought up the issue of retirement to Germano, the complaint states that fellow Senior Extension Associate Kathleen Devine replied, “What is he the poster child for retirement? Don’t you ever stop?”

“It was just constant harassment, threats and ultimately, terminating my employment by the pretext and ploy of closing the office,” Germano said.

Martin allegedly told Germano that she would stop harassing him if he relinquished his position as direc
tor. On Oct. 4, 2003, the decision was made to close the Long Island office to save money. According to the complaint, the office was actually “overachieving despite being understaffed.” On the 24th, he received a letter from Lawler, saying that Germano’s employment was terminated, effective July 1, 2003.

During this same period, the only other person who was fired was a 70-year-old. The other Long Island employees, who were allegedly younger and less experienced than Germano, were offered jobs at the New York City office, even though he was fired for “financial reasons” — which he claims was a pretext for discrimination.

In early November, Seeber went to meet with Germano and asked if he intended to sue the University and ILR school, as school officials were worried about the liability concerning the treatment of Germano. According to his complaint, as Seeber left, he told Germano to “sue the shit out of those bastards.”

Even with a meeting with members of the University and Long Island labor groups, which resulted in the reopening of the Long Island office and the implied decision to keep Germano as director, he was left out of creating the initial budget — a sign that the defendants did not want to keep him, according to the brief.

“The paradox was while they were threatening me to retire, they were also praising my work and referring to my office as understaffed and overachieving. It made no sense,” he said.

The University has until Feb. 21 to respond to the complaint. In answering this, University officials have the right to respond to the allegations either by filing an answer — a document that denies the factual allegations in the complaint — or make a motion to dismiss causes of action in the event a complaint fails to state proper legal claims, according to Nelson Roth, University counsel for this case. Although not outlining any specific plans, Roth is quietly confident in defending the University.

“These lawsuits are completely without merit and we intend to defend vigorously against them,” Roth said. “Although I do not want to discuss specific facts publicly before this matter proceeds through the judicial process, I can say that although personnel decisions are never easy, the ILR school made reasoned judgments totally unaffected either by the age or sex of the plaintiffs.”

Roth said this process will take a couple of years, saying that after the initial stage of the suit, the parties are allowed to take depositions, and conduct pre-trial discovery. After this is completed, Roth said motions will be made to dismiss the cases.

Germano, who currently works at Dowling College, hopes that the University realizes what it did was wrong and they “should not get away with this — especially for a school that is the premier in the industry.” Germano, whose two children and their spouses all attended Cornell, has similar sentiments as Leibowitz, an alum and former University valedictorian.

“I want my job back and want to be made whole because I was discriminated against in violation of federal law,” Leibowitz said. “I had the best job in the whole world, I had the best education in the whole world and I was giving back to the students of which I had been one.”

When asked if she would take a position at the University if it was offered now, Leibowitz said, “in a heartbeat.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao