Cheektowaga Town Court has lost the services of two key employees in a month’s time amid a dispute over a controversial four-year-old video showing a town prosecutor making advances on another employee.
Stephanie Lewandowski saw her job as Town Court clerk vanish Jan. 28 when the Town Board voted to abolish the position.
About a month later, Town Justice Dennis A. Delano, who opposed abolishing the job, stopped showing up for work. He gave no reason and no indication how long he would be absent from the bench.
In the meantime, the other town justice, Paul S. Piotrowski, has been doing double duty, handling both Delano’s court calendar and his own as town officials consider whether to ask Western New York’s state administrative judge to appoint a temporary town justice. In the meantime, Delano continues to receive his $74,960 salary.
The dispute started in February 2010 with an internal surveillance video showing Piotrowski, who was town prosecutor at the time, making seemingly unwanted overtures to a senior clerk typist.
The woman complained to her boss, Lewandowski, who viewed the video and wrote a report on the incident. The clerk typist later met with Piotrowski and told him to stop the advances. He agreed.
But when a story about the incident appeared in The Buffalo News in October 2011, about a month after Piotrowski won five ballot lines in the September primary for town judge, Lewandowski says, Piotrowski blamed her “for the fallout” from the scandal, an allegation she denies.
After Piotrowski was elected and took office, Lewandowksi says he began a harassment campaign. She alleges he subjected her to about 2,600 instances of harassment a year in 2012 and 2013. She says she complained to town officials, but the harassment continued.
After the Town Board voted to eliminate her position, Lewandowski filed an employment discrimination complaint Feb. 13 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the vote was in retaliation for her complaints against Piotrowski.
The complaint, filed by attorneys Lindy Korn and Candace Alnaji, alleges a hostile work environment and retaliation, both in violation of the state’s human rights law and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. It asks the commission to investigate Lewandowski’s allegations against the town, Town Board, Town Court, Piotrowski and the state Office of Court Administration.
Lewandowski contends that under the state’s town law, the approval of both town judges was needed to remove her from her job and that Delano opposed her removal.
Town officials contend that the Town Board didn’t vote to remove her from her job but instead voted to abolish the position, which they say the board can do without the judges’ approval because it created and funded the position.
Piotrowski denies Lewandowski’s claim that he harassed her in retaliation for the story on the Feb. 25, 2010, incident that was captured on a court security camera. It shows Piotrowski putting his arm around the senior clerk typist and then bending to one knee, kissing her hand before later embracing her as she smiles, but attempts to get away.
“I feel sorry Miss Lewandowski lost her job as I feel sorry for anyone who loses a job.” Piotrowski said. “But it’s unfair and unkind to try to use someone as a scapegoat for one’s own gain.”
He said he would never harass anyone. He called the allegations “grossly untrue.”
Lewandowki’s complaint says that from the time he took office in January 2012 until her job was eliminated two years later, Piotrowski “subjected Ms. Lewandowski to a severe and pervasive hostile work environment that was fully permitted by the town, its agents and the Office of Court Administration.”
The complaint says Piotrowski “made it a practice to verbally bully and intimidate Ms. Lewandowski” and that Piotrowski and the town continued to strip her of her job duties.
It says she complained to the town’s human resources director and the Town Board, but the harassment continued. It says she also complained to the Office of Court Administration.
Before Piotrowski took the bench, Lewandowski, who became court clerk in 2000, served throughout the terms of five different town justices, including Delano, and “never encountered problems with any of them,” the complaint says.
On Jan. 29, recently elected Cheektowaga Council Member Diane Benczkowski, who heads the Town Board’s Committee on Police and Courts with Council Member Jerry Kaminski, told Lewandowski at a meeting with other town officials that the Town Board had eliminated her position the night before, the complaint says.
Benczkowski told her that her position was abolished due to a 2013 records study, a study that the complaint says recommended her position be supported with three part-time clerks.
When Lewandowski asked town officials who would perform her duties, since she held a civil service title, the town’s human resources director told her she was “not in a protected class,” the complaint says.
When Lewandowski asked if both judges agreed to the elimination of her job, Benczkowski said “they had the attorneys check into it.” Since “the Town Board created the position, the Town Board had the right to eliminate the position,” the complaint said.
Lewandowski later got a phone call from Delano’s court clerk who said Delano told Benczkowski and Kaminski that the Town Board did not have his permission to eliminate her position, according to the complaint.
In February, Town Supervisor Mary Holtz said the town planned to hire two part-time clerks to perform Lewandowski’s duties, it says.
Benczkowski told The News that the court clerk position was abolished because the 2013 study, which she called an efficiency assessment and work flow study of the court, found that it wasn’t needed. She also said the town judges’ approval was not required because the Town Board did not remove Lewandowski from her job but instead voted unanimously to abolish the position.
She said the move was part of an effort to save the town money, noting that the board also eliminated one of its two administrative positions.