Former Clerk To Sue Springs School District, Claiming Hostile Work Environment, Wrongful Termination

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A former district clerk at the Springs School District is moving forward with a lawsuit alleging that she was subjected to a “hostile work environment” and “retaliatory conduct” that led to “extreme physical and psychological distress.”

According to the October 27 notice of claim, Fran Silipo, who is still employed as the district superintendent’s confidential secretary, but who was removed from her $11,500 stipended position as district clerk, is asking for $1 million in damages. Both Superintendent John J. Finello and the Springs School Board are named in the notice of claim, which also cites “wrongful termination.”

The document states that Ms. Silipo, who has been employed by the district since 1999, was treated with hostility after a Freedom of Information Law request came to her desk asking for invoices paid to an architecture firm, BBS Architects and Engineers, which was hired to work on plans for the school’s proposed expansion. It said Ms. Silipo was “repeatedly told by Superintendent [John] Finello to find documentation related to this request that Superintendent Mr. Finello knew did not exist.”

The district has been accused of hiring the contractor without a formal request for proposals, which angered some in the community.

The notice of claim went on to describe a series of events including Ms. Silipo’s removal from her role as district clerk, a position appointed by the Board of Education. According to the claim, on or about July 13 she was notified by Mr. Finello that School Board President Elizabeth Mendelman “was making calls to garner board support to remove Ms. Silipo as district clerk,” and he told her she should resign.

Following her earlier encounter with Mr. Finello, the notice said, Ms. Silipo left work in tears and had to be treated by a doctor for “work-related stress and anxiety.” She was unable to return to her job until July 21.

At that evening’s reorganizational meeting, the School Board, made up of Ms. Mendelman, Timothy Frazier, Barbara Dayton, Adam Wilson and Jeffrey Miller, made a motion to appoint Julie Bistrian as district clerk for the 2015-16 school year, which was approved, with Mr. Miller casting the only dissenting vote.

In a phone interview last week, Ms. Silipo said that the lawsuit is based on the way she was treated when she returned to her duties as secretary to the superintendent, which is also an appointed position that pays her $67,000 annually.

“Every job I did was taken away from me,” she said, referring to her daily duties. “I was just propped in a corner.”

Ms. Silipo said upon her return to work she discovered she no longer had access to online filing systems, her keys to personnel files were taken away and another staff member took over her duties.

Despite asking for work to do, Ms. Silipo said, she was either ignored or received curt responses from Mr. Finello instructing her not to touch anything.

Meanwhile, she said, the board never explicitly told her she was terminated from her position as district clerk. Instead, she said, she was emailed a copy of the July 13 Board of Education meeting minutes that said Ms. Bistrian had been appointed.

Ms. Silipo claimed her mistreatment grew worse after she filed an initial notice of claim on August 24. She said she was removed from the office space she had for years and was prohibited from interacting with the staff. In addition, she said Ms. Mendelman blamed her for sending community members to board meetings to speak on her behalf.

During her 15-year career with the Springs School District, Ms. Silipo said, she has received nothing but stellar reviews from her supervisors. There was no indication that her work was unsatisfactory, she said.

“This job was near and dear to me,” said Ms. Silipo. “I’ve met so many parents and children … it was my heart and soul.”

While Mr. Finello could not be reached for comment, Ms. Mendelman said she was not permitted to speak about the case publicly and directed questions to the school district’s attorney, Adam Kleinberg of Stokoloff Stern LLP.

“This is an entirely frivolous claim,” said Mr. Kleinberg. “Ms. Silipo apparently intends to litigate this in the media. I do not, and I look forward to proving that the board and the superintendent’s actions were entirely appropriate at all times.”

Ms. Silipo said she is currently at home on unpaid medical leave after suffering a stroke on October 29 that affected the right side of her body, leaving her unable to drive.

“I was making very good money. Right now I’m making no money,” said Ms. Silipo, a mother of two.

While she remains employed by the district, she said her 30-day leave of absence is coming to an end. Although she received another letter from a doctor indicating her need for another 30-day absence, Ms. Silipo said the district can reject that and terminate her.

Steve A. Morelli, Ms. Silipo’s Garden City attorney, said her condition was brought upon by the “torture” she experienced at the Springs School, evidenced by multiple doctor’s letters identifying her condition as stress-related.

According to district court records, this is not the first time Mr. Morelli has faced Mr. Finello in court. The superintendent was named in two separate lawsuits from employees at the Huntington Union Free School District during his time as the district’s superintendent from 2001 to 2011, according to court documents. Mr. Morelli served as the employees’ attorney in both cases.

In August 2007, former Huntington High School Principal Carmela Leonardi filed a notice of claim against the Huntington Union Free School District, the district’s Board of Education, School Board President Richard McGrath, School Board Vice President Robert Lee and Mr. Finello.

In the claim, Ms. Leonardi said she suffered “a loss of earnings, benefits and reputation,” along with “great pain, mental anguish and physical injury” after being psychologically and emotionally abused by the parties listed, which the suit said resulted in her being demoted and transferred to an alternative high school in the district.

Another claim was filed in 2012 by former Huntington elementary school teacher Vincenza Caruso-Farmigletti, who said she “suffered emotionally from mistreatment meted by Huntington UFSD.”

Ms. Caruso-Farmigletti’s case was eventually dismissed, while Ms. Leonardi settled with the defendants out of court for an undisclosed amount.

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