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Junke case against City of Lockport reopened

LOCKPORT – The discrimination case brought by Melissa I. Junke, Lockport’s former youth and recreation director, against the city was reopened Wednesday, as the state Division of Human Rights conceded before a court hearing that its initial investigation of the case was incomplete.

The state agency had ruled May 28 that Junke, who was axed in June 2014 while she was on workers’ compensation from a back injury suffered five months earlier when she fell on an icy sidewalk outside her Altro Park office, had no probable cause to blame discrimination for her removal.

State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III, who was planning to hear Junke’s appeal Wednesday anyway, heard some brief arguments and endorsed the Division of Human Rights’ request to reopen the matter.

Ryan Smith, an attorney sent by the city’s liability insurance company, stuck with the city’s claim that Junke was simply among 28 people laid off because of the city’s well publicized financial crisis. “I have yet to see what issue or issues the investigator may have overlooked,” Smith said.

A court filing by Human Rights attorneys concluded that “the division’s investigator may have overlooked or not given full consideration to certain issues (Junke) had raised.”

Division attorney Erin Sobkowski said in court that “one of the key factors that’s lacking” was whether the budget crisis was merely a pretext to get rid of Junke.

In her appeal, Lindy Korn, Junke’s attorney, pointed to possible retaliation against Junke in the wake of the controversy that began in early February 2014 over Junke’s use of a city credit card to help pay expenses connected with a golf tournament organized by a restaurant owned by her brother. The appeal also contained documents that purported to show that Junke had been sexually harassed by then-Mayor Michael W. Tucker and had helped cover up an affair Tucker allegedly was having with another city employee.

Tucker resigned Feb. 21, 2014, and the city’s response to Junke’s original discrimination complaint charged that on Feb. 20, Junke’s then-attorney, George V.C. Muscato, had demanded Tucker’s resignation as the price for not going public with the sexual allegations.

Korn told Boniello Wednesday that the state investigator failed to interview one person, whom she didn’t name, “who had direct knowledge of the bias and discrimination against my client.”

Smith said the court file includes a Nov. 12, 2013, email in which then-Council President Anne E. McCaffrey suggested abolishing Junke’s job in the 2014 budget. That was months before the credit card case blew up and proves, according to Smith, that the reason for her removal was financial. Junke was not replaced.

Korn said, “There’s evidence that my client’s position was paid for through grant funding.”

McCaffrey, now mayor, said later Wednesday that the city receives state aid for youth programs, which has been steadily declining. In 2013, it included $19,001 for administrative functions in Junke’s office. “That did not cover even half of her salary,” McCaffrey said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com