March 27, 2012

Mayor Defends City Against Claims of Discrimination

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In the face of four ongoing discrimination lawsuits against the city, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said Ithaca is “committed to diversity” and he is confident the city will prevail in court.

Although all four suits claim racial discrimination, Myrick said the city does not “actively, systemically discriminate.” He added that it seems to be “a coincidence that all four of these happened to hit within a year.”

The most recent of the four lawsuits, filed on March 13 by a former Building Department housing inspector, seeks $3 million in damages. The inspector, Ramon Santana, alleges the Building Commissioner “made open racially charged comments about him while attending a staff meeting” — one of a series of events that, Santana says, created a hostile work environment.

In a separate lawsuit, Mark Hassan, a former city firefighter, is arguing that he faced discrimination within the Ithaca Fire Department. In the suit, he says he “has been referred to, among other terms, as 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.

About two years before he was fired, Hassan says he was ordered to attend a “psychological examination without cause or basis, a tactic employed by the City of Ithaca against disfavored employees.”

Myrick said that each of the lawsuits is “without merit.”

“We feel confident that the employees in question were removed for cause and there was no discrimination involved,” he said.

The Santana and Hassan lawsuits join two suits recently followed by city police officers. In one, filed in May 2010, Chris Miller claims he faced harsher discipline than his non-white colleagues. He also argues the city retaliated against him for filing a human rights complaint. He is seeking $17 million in damages.

In the other police lawsuit, filed Feb. 29, Sgt. Douglas Wright alleges that he was unfairly passed over for promotion twice. In both instances, he says, a black officer was promoted instead of him because of his race. Wright is seeking $10.5 million from the lawsuit’s defendants, who include the IPD, former Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson and other city officials.

“The defendants unfairly and routinely endorse, support and believe the word of African-American and minority employees over that of [Wright] and male Caucasian employees,” the lawsuit states.

Wright’s lawsuit claims that IPD’s racial discrimination extends to “hiring, promotions, discipline, retention, training, assignments and investigations into misconduct.”

Despite the four lawsuits, Myrick said that he is not undertaking any special efforts to fight discrimination because he is confident in Ithaca’s existing diversity programs.

But Hassan — who was a firefighter for almost 15 years — argues that the city, the firefighters’ union and other defendants “violated [his] right to be free from discrimination on the In one example of alleged discrimination, Hassan says he received a notice of discipline  in May 2010 that prohibited him “‘from entering any City of Ithaca building, facility, property or worksite,’ a restriction … not placed upon other suspended firefighters.”

His lawsuit, which was originally reported by The Ithaca Journal, was filed July 1. The defendants successfully moved it from state court to federal district court at the end of October.

“The city is vigorously defending itself against these old, unwarranted allegations,” Ithaca City Attorney Aaron Lavine ’01, J.D. ’04, told The Journal on Thursday. “The city is proud to be an equal opportunity employer, and Mr. Hassan’s employment was terminated only after a full and fair arbitration.”

In his lawsuit, Santana — who was a city housing inspector from late 2006 until he was fired in 2010 — says he was denied overtime that was granted to white employees. He argues that the overtime was necessary for him to be able to complete his duties.

Lavine told The Journal that, like Hassan, Santana was only fired after a full arbitration.

Although all four lawsuits claim racial discrimination and are still active, Myrick denied that systemic discrimination exists in the city’s government.

“It seems that there is a rash of lawsuits, but we feel that, after reviewing each lawsuit, each is without merit,” he said.

Original Author: Michael Linhorst