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Ousted Lockport youth chief loses case against city - again

The City of Lockport violated no laws when it abolished Melissa I. Junke's job as the city's youth and recreation director,  a state hearing officer has ruled.

Judge Martin Erazo Jr.'s decision is a complete win for the city. The Buffalo News obtained the ruling, dated Feb. 10, under the Freedom of Information Law.

Erazo, an administrative law judge for the State Division of Human Rights, wrote in his 11-page ruling that the city presented "legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its actions that were not a subterfuge for unlawful discrimination."

However, Lindy Korn, Junke's attorney, said she will file objections before the March 15 appeal deadline.

"This is not a done deal. When the commissioner (of human rights) issues a final order, then it's a done deal," Korn said.

Erazo's ruling represents the second time Junke's allegations have been rejected. The Buffalo office of the State Division of Human Rights had ruled in May 2015 that Junke had no case, but changed its mind nine months later and ordered a formal hearing, which was held in July and September 2016.

Junke had claimed she lost her job in June 2014  because the city was retaliating against her after she complained that former Mayor Michael W. Tucker sexually harassed her, or because of an investigation that the city had opened over Junke's alleged misuse of a city credit card to help organize a golf tournament sponsored by a restaurant owned by her brother.

Junke, 35, also contended she was discriminated against because she was off work on a medical leave at the time of her ouster. She injured her back falling on ice outside her city office Jan. 6, 2014.

Junke remains on worker's compensation to this day, Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said Thursday.

Erazo ruled that Junke failed to prove her discrimination and retaliation charges, while the city argued successfully that the youth director job was abolished because of the city's financial crisis, which resulted in special state legislation that allowed Lockport to borrow money to pay off its accumulated deficit of more than $4 million. In all, the city abolished or left vacant 27 jobs between November 2013 and October 2014.

Erazo did not rule on the merits of the more lurid allegations Junke raised against Tucker, including a claim that Tucker asked her in June 2013 to text him a nude photo of herself and that she helped Tucker cover up an affair Tucker was allegedly having with another city employee. Junke claimed that as far back as 2009, she drove the other woman to a remote location in Orleans County, where Tucker would pick up the woman.

Tucker has called thos accusations "garbage," and Erazo did not address them because they allegedly happened outside of the one-year window state law sets for such complaints to be filed. Junke said none happened after January 2014, and she didn't file her complaint with the state until January 2015. Tucker did not testify at the hearing.

"It's all time-barred, and it was apparent from the outset that it was time-barred," said attorney Ryan G. Smith, who represented the city in the hearings. "The city's obviously pleased with the well-reasoned order from Judge Erazo."

George V.C. Muscato, Junke's attorney at the time, in February 2014 gave the city's attorney a copy of Junke's threat to go public with the harassment allegations against Tucker. He resigned the next day. Erazo said that notice was protected under antidiscrimination law, but Junke couldn't prove that her ouster was retaliation for that act.

"They did find we proved a prima facie case on retaliation, but then took it away on other legal grounds," Korn said. Among those grounds was the fact that the credit card probe began before Junke made her sexual harassment claim against Tucker.

McCaffrey, who succeeded Tucker, testified that when she was on the Common Council in November 2013, she sent her colleagues an email suggesting the abolition of Junke's job, among other proposals, for financial reasons.

It was unclear how much the Junke case would cost the city in legal expenses. Smith, of the Webster Szanyi law firm, was hired by the city's municipal liability insurance carrier, the New York Municipal Insurance Reciprocal. City Clerk Richelle J. Pasceri said that policy has deductibles ranging from $15,000 to $25,000, depending on which of several policies applies to the case. She said no legal bills have been received so far.

 

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