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County settles lawsuit with jail officer who says coworkers retaliated against her

Erie County will pay $239,000 to settle a lawsuit triggered by the Sheriff’s Office’s failure to abide by a court agreement.

The money will go to former Holding Center Lt. Jacqueline Kretzmon and her lawyer, who in 2011 alleged that Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s team breached an accord struck in 2008.

In the initial complaint, Kretzmon reported that she had been disparaged by other employees, given poor work reviews and someone poured a foreign substance poured into her car’s gas tank – largely because she was a woman and a lesbian in a mostly male and heterosexual workplace.

To settle the matter, the county in 2008 paid $75,000 and agreed Kretzmon never would be in Chief Michael Reardon’s direct chain of command. Kretzmon didn’t blame Reardon for the cruel acts, but because of myriad issues, she feared retaliation if under his direct oversight.

Reardon was reassigned to the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. But he eventually was returned to the Holding Center in Buffalo, as its chief of operations, and placed above Kretzmon in the hierarchy.

Kretzmon objected and in 2011 filed a federal lawsuit stating the agreement had been violated. The Sheriff’s Office and a county lawyer argued that Kretzmon actually reported to a captain, not Reardon. But Kretzmon cited several occasions in which Reardon bypassed the captain, gave her direct orders and treated her unfairly.

Other employees, she said, saw the situation and disparaged her. She was described in coarse terms on an online blog frequented by Holding Center deputies. When she exposed the fact that a gang of deputies had bullied an inmate, and one of the deputies punched the inmate in the stomach, someone threw a decapitated rat onto her driveway.

This summer, U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder agreed the county had strayed from the pact.

“The language of the settlement agreement clearly and unambiguously provides that the County of Erie would not place Michael Reardon in a position of direct authority over plaintiff,” Schroeder said in a written finding. “… There is no dispute, however, Mr. Reardon’s reassignment to the Erie County Holding Center prompted numerous occasions where Mr. Reardon was directing plaintiff’s work.”

By then, the county and Kretzmon’s lawyer, Lindy Korn, had attempted to mediate a settlement, and those talks were revived during the autumn months. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidate for sheriff, Bernard Tolbert, cited the case to criticize Howard, a Republican who in November won a fourth four-year term.

The County Attorney’s Office recently revealed the county will pay $239,000 but admits no liability. Most of the sum, $200,000, will go to pay back wages for Kretzmon. While now retired, she said in her lawsuit that the stress left her unable to work for long stretches of time and unable to collect on opportunities for overtime and holiday pay.

In Erie County government, the Legislature is not asked to approve out-of-court settlements, unlike the Buffalo Common Council when the Corporation Counsel’s Office settles a legal matter. But one county lawmaker said that based on his knowledge of Kretzmon’s complaint, the payout would have been avoided if the Sheriff’s Office followed the terms of the 2011 agreement.

“I think it is absurd the amount of money the public has had to spend on settlements because of the Sheriff’s Office,” said Legislator Patrick B. Burke, D-Buffalo.

One analysis, by retired librarian Jean Dickson, who gathered details of the county’s legal costs, shows $2.5 million has been spent to defend and settle legal proceedings during Howard’s years as sheriff.

“I am not the only one who is tired of hearing about cases such as this,” Burke said, predicting the Legislature will become more vigilant when the body returns to Democratic control in January.

News reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this article.

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