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Appellate court upholds residency firing of Falls employee

NIAGARA FALLS – The City of Niagara Falls was in the right when it fired a clerk for violating the city’s residency law, an appeals court ruled Friday.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Sandra M. Bowman, who had challenged her firing in a lawsuit filed in September 2011.

At first, Bowman won, with State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. ruling in May 2012 that Bowman was entitled to get her job back.

But in February, the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, altered the law on residency requirements by upholding three firings by the Niagara Falls School District. Lower court judges had found the school’s residency rule was unenforceable, but the Court of Appeals approved it.

The Appellate Division then applied the high court’s ruling to Bowman’s case, and gave her the boot.

It was the second time in five weeks the Rochester-based panel had upheld a Niagara Falls firing. On May 3, the court ruled against Angel M. Alexis, an account clerk in the city Engineering Department, who was fired over residency.

The facts in the two cases were similar. Both women were accused of living in the Town of Niagara but claimed they lived in Niagara Falls. In both cases, the city hired an investigator who kept them under surveillance and found that more often than not, Bowman and Alexis drove to homes in the Town of Niagara, stayed the night and went from there to work the next morning.

City Administrator Donna Owens filed charges against both employees in January 2010. Both went through hearings, presided over by Niagara Falls attorney David G. Boniello, who ruled against both women. Alexis and Bowman were fired in May 2011.

Both filed lawsuits in September 2011, represented by the same attorney, E. Joseph Giroux, who could not be reached to comment late Friday. Both won in lower court – State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto handled Alexis’ case – but lost on appeal.

Bowman had worked 25 years for the city; her last annual salary was $35,750. Alexis put in nine years; her final salary was $39,113.

Bowman actually was fired twice over residency. The city dismissed her in November 2008, but reinstated her three months later after a protest over the law’s validity.

The city asserted in court papers that Bowman had signed a “last chance agreement” when she was reinstated, agreeing that she could lose her job if she violated the rule again.

But the Appellate Division wasn’t interested in that, instead upholding the law because of the Court of Appeals’ ruling that residency laws can be enforced unless there is “no rational basis” to do so, or if the charges are “without foundation in fact.”