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Former Niagara Health Dept. worker sues over alleged gender and age bias

LOCKPORT – A former employee of the Niagara County Health Department is alleging that she was forced out of her job last year because of gender and age discrimination.

However, the state Division of Human Rights doesn’t agree, finding that Margaret M. Zaepfel, 58, has no probable cause to pursue a case against the county.

Last week, Zaepfel’s attorney, Lindy Korn of Buffalo, filed suit in State Supreme Court against the Division of Human Rights and the county, seeking to reverse that decision.

Korn said Friday, “Her complaints were based on age and sex discrimination and retaliation. Anything can happen, but we’re saying we have the right to go to a trial.”

County Human Resources Director Peter P. Lopes said Zaepfel joined the Health Department in February 2011, first as an environmental health aide, from which she later was promoted to public health sanitarian. When she left in June of last year, her salary was $45,718 a year.

Lopes said Zaepfel resigned; Korn said she was “constructively discharged.” Other than that, Lopes declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit, as did Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton.

The suit contends that the Health Department “has a history of treating female workers, particularly older females, disparately from its younger and male employees.”

Korn’s papers cite four alleged examples in which women were passed over for promotions given to men. The county’s attorney on the case, Melinda G. Disare of Bond Schoeneck & King, responded that Zaepfel was wrong about the circumstances of the promotions and that Zaepfel herself was promoted in 2012 over a male employee with more seniority.

The lawsuit also alleges that one of Zaepfel’s supervisors was “a misogynist” who made what she considered a series of “degrading comments” about women. Zaepfel was given a written warning in 2014 accusing her of “disrespectful behavior” and “failure to follow the reasonable orders of management.” She also was brought up on departmental charges two other times.

The lawsuit said Zaepfel’s run-ins with management led to a visit to a hospital emergency room Feb. 1, 2015, to be treated for heart palpitations.

In January, the Division of Human Rights issued a finding of no probable cause to believe that the county was discriminating against Zaepfel. “The record shows younger and male employees were treated similarly, while a female employee older than (Zaepfel) says she was not harassed,” the decision stated. It said that Zaepfel resigned before the county could set up a meeting with her regarding her complaint to the state and that more than 25 percent of the Health Department’s workers are the same age as Zaepfel or older.

The county’s response says Zaepfel disagreed with county policy on several enforcement issues, ranging from fire codes to summer camp inspections to temporary housing permits, and was accused of disobedience when she allegedly followed her own ideas rather than the department’s policies.