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State Human Rights Commissioner Finds Iona College Guilty of Age Discrimination

The Westchester Journal News - Liz Sadler

Iona College illegally discriminated against an assistant dean when it replaced her with a less-qualified and less-experienced woman 28 years her junior, the state Human Rights Commissioner has ruled.

The commissioner, Kumiki Gibson, last week signed the order finding Iona guilty of age discrimination five years ago and ordered the New Rochelle college to pay more than $250,000 to the former assistant dean, Maryann Rossi, who is 59 years old, for lost wages and mental anguish.

The ruling came in response to a complaint Rossi filed in August 2002 with the state Division of Human Rights, which enforces the state Human Rights Law. The law prohibits employment discrimination based on age, race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, military status and other classifications.

"I think this is a great victory for an excellent employee," said Mark Humowiecki, the New York City attorney who represented Rossi. "It's vindication for Maryann Rossi. She was treated poorly by Dean (Alex) Eodice from the beginning to the end of her employment there. We're pleased that the state Division of Human Rights took on this matter and found discrimination, and we feel vindicated."

A complaint to the Division of Human Rights is an alternative to litigation. Complainants do not need their own attorneys and the cases are heard by an administrative law judge who makes a recommendation to the commissioner, who in turn can modify, accept or reject it. Iona has 60 days to appeal the ruling in state Supreme Court.

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In her 18-page ruling, Administrative Law Judge Patricia Moro wrote that Iona's "restructuring of the dean's office reveals that individuals over 50 were disproportionately terminated."

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According to the ruling, Iona hired Rossi in 1999 as assistant dean for academic programs after an extensive national search. Rossi received positive job performance evaluations and assignments outside her regular job description, according to the ruling.

But when an associate dean position opened up in 2001, a supervisor reportedly told Rossi he would not recommend her because of concerns she would not be a good fit with the acting dean. The job was briefly posted by the Human Resources department but Rossi never applied for it, even though she was interested.

The next month, then-acting Dean Eodice hired his former administrative assistant as the assistant dean for academic programs - Rossi's job. The college argued that it did not replace Rossi with the new hire, Mary Ellen Walsh, but budget records indicate otherwise.

Rossi was assigned to the temporary position of assistant dean for budget management and program development, but that job was eliminated at the end of the year. Eodice then restructured the dean's office in July 2002 and terminated Rossi and two other employees.

Eodice told Moro that Rossi was fired because she could not perform the required course scheduling with the department's new computer software. Walsh was a recent graduate with no academic administration experience and little teaching experience.

"There is no dispute that complainant could have performed the duties of Walsh's position, which primarily consisted of course scheduling and load sheets, both of which she had done before," Moro said. "However, Eodice chose to terminate complainant and keep Walsh, despite the significant experience of complainant and the minimal experience of Walsh."

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