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Ruling blocks probe of Wal-Mart over firings

The state Division of Human Rights has been blocked from investigating complaints by three former Wal-Mart workers who say they were fired illegally, long after they disclosed prior sex-offense convictions to their employer.

Emphasizing he was "constrained" by high court rulings and legislative history, State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita Jr. last week granted Wal-Mart's request to block further work on complaints of Richard Ritchie, Richard Gibson and Phillip Root.

Sedita held that, under "settled law" in the state, such employees can be terminated "at any time."

The judge noted the State Legislature has not extended provisions of state law designed to protect employees with criminal records who are fired after they have been on the job.

He agreed with lawyers representing Wal-Mart that the state Division of Human Rights "lacks the necessary legislative grant of authority to continue its proposed investigation."

Ritchie, 48, of Buffalo, a former Santa Claus at Wal-Mart's Thruway Plaza store in Cheektowaga, said the ruling will be appealed.

Gibson, 41, of Henderson, who worked in maintenance at the Watertown Wal-Mart, and Root, 39, of Delevan, who worked as a stocker at the Springville Wal-Mart, could not be reached to comment.

Root was fired in September 2004; Gibson, the following December. The court case resulted from Root's complaint to the Division of Human Rights in October 2004.

According to court papers, all three had disclosed their criminal histories before being hired by Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer.

Ritchie, who worked in the Thruway Plaza store for two seasons, was convicted of sexual abuse in 1993; Gibson was found guilty of statutory rape in 2000; and Root was convicted of sexual abuse in 1999.

In filings with the court, the Division of Human Rights maintained it had made "preliminary findings of jurisdiction and probable cause" to consider sanctions against Wal-Mart. It also labeled the company's attempt to stop the probe premature.

e-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com

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