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ALBANY – A town court clerk was fired for allowing a backlog of traffic tickets to get out of control and not, as she maintained, because of her age and the leave she took for knee replacement surgery, a federal judge ruled.

Northern District Judge Mae D’Agostino (See Profile) dismissed Sonya Lehtinen’s discrimination claim against the Town of Greenport in Columbia County, finding that the town presented valid justification for her dismissal while she was recuperating from surgery under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“Defendant has come forward with a neutral reason for terminating her employment: her inability to meet the demands of the position of court clerk and, in particular, a significant backlog of scofflaw tickets, error report entries, and unaccounted funds creditable to offenders and payable to the State Comptroller’s office,” D’Agostino wrote in Lehtinen v. Town of Greenport, 1:12-cv-393.

The fact that Lehtinen was fired in February 2011 as she was to return from leave was coincidence, the judge said, and not retaliation for her absence after surgery the previous November.

Lehtinen, who took FMLA leave after exhausting personal, sick and vacation time, argued that the act required that she be restored to her previous job or a comparable position upon her return.

The town denied her allegation that she was fired because of her age, which was 60 at the time of her termination.

Greenport Town Court Justice Robert Brenzel testified that it was not until a replacement clerk stepped in to do Lehtinen’s job during her absence that the full extent of the ticket-processing problems became evident.

Brenzel said that before her leave, he had complained to Lehtinen of seeing unprocessed tickets “in boxes on the floor, on the counter, just all over the court clerk’s office, obviously not being taken care of.”

Brenzel also said the replacement clerk told him that Lehtinen asked her to enter into the system the tickets kept in a plastic bag “hidden behind a soda box under the front counter in the clerk’s office” and return unprocessed tickets to the hiding place so Brenzel would not find out.

Lehtinen denied that she hid tickets, but said the number of traffic tickets coming into the town court had tripled since she took the job in 1997, and she acknowledged telling Brenzel she was having trouble keeping up with the volume.

The Northern District ruling also noted that a February 2011 audit of the town court’s books indicated nearly $6,000 in the account that should have been processed, credited to traffic violators and forwarded to the state comptroller’s office.

D’Agostino said the ticket-processing delays posed problems for the court and the public.

Because tickets were not entered promptly into the computer, violators were allowed to delay payments of fines. In other cases, Lehtinen acknowledged that the clerk’s office was slow to correct errors in the state computer system for traffic tickets when motorists were wrongly held in default for non-payment of fines.

D’Agostino also said that Lehtinen acknowledged that “there were instances in which individuals had paid fines, but she had failed to enter that payment, resulting in an unwarranted suspension of those individuals’ driver’s licenses.”

Taken altogether, the record indicates that the only verified connection between Lehtinen’s medical leave and her termination was that they occurred at the same time, the judge said.

“Not only does it appear that plaintiff was terminated for her deficient performance, but there is not a scintilla of evidence for concluding that her ‘leave’ played any role in this employment decision,” D’Agostino wrote.

Citing Sista v. CDC Ixis North Am., 445 F.3d 161 (2d Cir. 2006), the judge noted that FMLA does not require an employer to reinstate a worker who would have lost their position for poor performance.

Lombardi, Walsh, Davenport & Amodeo partner Paul Davenport argued for Lehtinen.

Jonathan Bernstein, partner at Goldberg Segalla in Albany, represented the Town of Greenport.