Court rules worker can sue city over denial of promotion - The Buffalo News
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Court rules worker can sue city over denial of promotion

William George claims the city repeatedly passed him over for promotion as retaliation for his refusal to contribute money to Mayor Byron W. Brown’s re-election campaigns.

A federal judge has ruled his case can go to trial.

George, a seasonal laborer, sued the city in 2009, claiming the Brown administration dropped a merit-based system of promotion in favor of a system that rewarded workers who are Democrats and supporters of the mayor.

In ruling against the city’s attempt to dismiss the suit, U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie G. Foschio said testimony in the case suggests “the possibility that one’s political affiliation and participation in Mayor Brown’s political campaign were crucial.”

George’s lawyer, Dean M. Drew, welcomed the ruling and said it reflects the Brown administration’s inability to tell the court who makes decisions on hiring, firing and promotions in the Department of Public Works.

“It seems pretty clear decisions were made in the Mayor’s Office,” said Drew.

Lawyers for the city declined to comment Monday, but they have the option of appealing Foschio’s ruling to a federal district judge.

Foschio, in his decision recommending the case move forward, pointed to the testimony of three city officials who said the Mayor’s Office played a major role in deciding who was hired and promoted at City Hall.

Those officials included Dana Bobinchek Floriano, a former special assistant to Brown, and Olivia Licata, administrative director of the Department of Human Resources.

“The record contains a plethora of evidence,” the judge said, “on which a reasonable jury could find plaintiff’s refusal to register as a Democrat and make financial contributions or donations to Mayor Brown’s political campaign fund was a motivating factor in defendant’s decision not to appoint plaintiff to a permanent laborer position.”

The city, in its defense, argued that George was “apolitical and was never pressured to become politically active.”

City officials also claim George did indeed work on Brown’s 2009 re-election campaign and that his involvement was inconsistent with his apolitical stance.

At least two of Brown’s aides, including Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak, testified that personnel decisions regarding laborers were made by one of George’s supervisors, not the Mayor’s Office.

In addition, Brown, who was deposed as part of the case, acknowledged that he would sometimes forward to Stepniak the names of people he wished to see hired but that Stepniak’s department always made the final call.

The mayor did acknowledge at one point that First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey had the authority to hire and fire employees but that he did not directly hire and fire “labor-level employees.”

The judge, as a part of his ruling, questioned why Casey, who he believes was “centrally involved” in the hiring of laborers, did not provide an affidavit denying the allegations that politics played a role in hiring and firing at City Hall.

He said a jury, as a matter of common sense, would have to infer that his testimony would have been unfavorable to the city.

“If Casey wasn’t involved,” Drew said, “the judge would have wanted an affidavit denying our allegations.”


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