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In a stinging opinion, a Manhattan Supreme Court justice has overturned a decision of the New York City Human Rights Commission rejecting the gender discrimination claims of a woman fired by the Department of Education. It took the commission four years to decide the female laborer’s claim in a process that was neither “neutral” nor “meaningful,” Justice Alice Schlesinger ruled. She directed the commission to conduct a new “full and fair” investigation. Even more damning, Schlesinger wrote, the commission removed its original investigator and “buried” the case file for two years after it received an angry letter of complaint from the Education Department’s attorney. “Frankly, it is hard to refrain from a finding that [the Education Department laborer] experienced discrimination at the hands of the commission, the agency whose mandate it is to protect individuals from discrimination by others,” Schlesinger wrote in David v. Commission on Human Rights, 403078/03. The laborer, Vanessa C. David, whose duties included carrying sheetrock up multiple flights of stairs, appeared without a lawyer before Justice Schlesinger. She was still on probation when the Education Department fired her in February 1999. The department defended the firing, saying that David had “failed her probationary period miserably.” The department claimed that she worked slowly, required a great deal of supervision and was reluctant to cooperate with co-workers. Justice Schlesinger noted that David contradicted those claims when she submitted her complaint to the commission. A petition signed by 19 of her co-workers, including her shop steward, described her as a “conscientious and good worker.” After more than four years of delay, Schlesinger found, the commission issued a decision that reflected “a wholesale adoption” of the Education Department’s “unproven allegations.” The commission never interviewed David nor any of her co-workers, Schlesinger wrote, despite repeated requests from her and her shop steward that it do so. The commission either conducted “no investigation or one that could be characterized as a sham,” she stated. Justice Schlesinger said that if an investigation was ever planned, “it was virtually stopped in its tracks by the receipt of a letter from counsel for the board.” The judge was referring to a letter written on June 16, 1999, by the Education Department’s lawyer, Michael J. Valente, to the lawyer supervising investigator John McCormick. The opinion referred to the supervisor’s title as “managing attorney” and did not disclose the supervisor’s name Valente complained that McCormick had made “threatening statements” to him indicating that the 19 petition-signers were backing David. After Valente’s letter was received by the commission, Schlesinger wrote, McCormick was taken off the case and the file “languished on a supervisor’s desk” for two years. Justice Schlesinger added that the commission’s file contained no indication that Valente’s letter was ever answered. “And if there was a phone response, which is probable, there is no indication of this anywhere in the file,” she said. Because of the “questionable way” in which the commission’s investigation appeared to have been handled, Schlesinger wrote, she demanded that the commission produce its entire file. After reviewing it, Schlesinger wrote, her impressions “of inaction, neglect or worse were reinforced.” The commission was represented by its staff attorney Susan Skovak-Stern.

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