A former Stony Brook University employee has filed a lawsuit against the university for alleged infractions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects employees from workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or religion.
Andrea Petterson, a former landscape manager at the university, argued in the complaint that her termination in June 2014 was a vindictive retaliation following a sexual harassment charge she reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Stony Brook University is the largest employer in the Town of Brookhaven, with more than 13,000 employees.
Petterson was promoted from horticulture technician to landscape manager in September 2012. John Alessio, director of facilities and services at the university, was her supervisor in this new position.
Alessio allegedly created a “pervasively hostile work environment through his relentless objectification of women,” and made salacious comments to other colleagues, according to Petterson’s court complaint. She also claimed that Alessio would make lewd comments that implied Petterson was in a same-sex relationship with Barbara Chernow, former senior vice president of administration at the university. This relationship was “entirely fictional,” the complaint states.
The complaint further states that when she started working under Alessio in September 2012, Petterson complained to Michele Lake, a project manager at the university, about Alessio’s “obscene and sexual comments,” but “to no avail, as nothing was done.” In an act of reprisal, Alessio allegedly began manipulating Petterson’s timesheet and delaying its approval, thus “causing a failure in compensation for hours actually worked.”
In March 2013, Petterson went to Terence Harrigan, assistant vice president of facilities and services, and “specifically complained about Alessio’s daily sexist, racist and objectifying comments, as well as his retaliatory refusal to approve [Petterson]’s timesheets in a timely manner,” the complaint states.
Despite Harrigan’s supposed assurance to remedy the situation, Alessio allegedly continued the offensive behavior.
In May 2013, the complaint states that Petterson turned to Chernow. In this meeting, Petterson “discussed Alessio’s improper conduct, expressed concerns that her prior complaints had not been addressed and had been improperly disclosed to her coworkers, resulting in negative gossip.”
The complaint states that despite Chernow’s assuring Petterson that the situation would be remedied, Petterson’s co-workers negatively gossiped about her.
Petterson claimed that when she missed two days due to illness, on or about June 1, 2013, she allegedly found that her office was moved to a storage room with no desk, windows or locks upon her return. The complaint also claims that some of Petterson’s belongings went missing during her absence, including “a notebook in which she kept a record of Alessio’s obnoxious and illegal behavior.” Despite her repeated complaints, Alessio continued as Petterson’s supervisor.
“Unfortunately I have to inform you that we do not comment on pending judicial matters,” Alessio said in an email reply to The Statesman’s request for comment.
On or about July 11, 2013, Petterson allegedly approached Harrigan and Chernow. She pointed out the lack of improvement and stated that her work environment was causing emotional distress.
At the end of August 2013, Harrigan was assigned to be Petterson’s new supervisor, while Al Dwyer, grounds manager at the university, acted as a “liaison” between Harrigan and Petterson.
Dwyer “showed little sympathy for [Petterson] and in fact exacerbated the discriminatory and retaliatory conduct,” the complaint states. Petterson reported Dwyer’s hostile behavior to Harrigan, who referred to the conduct as a “non-issue,” the complaint states.
Harrigan requested a meeting with Petterson on June 20, 2014, the complaint states. During this meeting, Petterson was allegedly presented with an evaluation in which she was given a failing grade for her job performance.
She was accused of poorly caring for trees, despite the fact that her work earned the university a sustainability award in March 2013 known as “Tree Campus USA” designation, the complaint states.
Petterson said in the complaint that she wanted to protest the evaluation, but Harrigan then informed her that she was terminated, effective immediately.
In her lawsuit submitted in March 2015, Petterson accused Stony Brook University of “unlawful employment practices prohibited by Title VII and the NYS Human Rights Law, by discriminating and retaliating against Plaintiff as a result of her protected statuses and activities.”
The deadline for the defense to respond to Petterson’s complaint was extended to Sept. 30, 2015. The State University of New York’s counsel declined to comment on this case.
William Sipser and Jack Tuckner of the firm Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sipser LLP will represent Petterson in the case.
Tuckner said that if the suit is not settled before trial, it could be up to two years before the case makes it to the courtroom.
“Discovery must be exchanged, depositions taken, motions must be filed and opposed, and then the court takes its time in making legal decisions,” Tuckner explained in an email.
If Stony Brook University is ultimately deemed liable, Petterson may be entitled to “money damages for her back and front pay losses, as well as compensatory damages for her emotional distress, and her attorneys’ fees,” Tuckner said, but he has yet to determine a specific amount.
When asked for comment on Petterson’s allegations, both Harrigan and Dwyer both referred The Statesman to Stony Brook’s media relations office.
“The University is unable to comment on pending litigation,” Lauren Sheprow, a Stony Brook University spokeswoman, said in an email.
Tuckner said he anticipates the case to be settled, but if not, the trial will be heard by a jury and Judge Denis R. Hurley of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Central Islip.