An associate counsel at the SUNY Construction Fund, a public benefit corporation that oversees capital projects for the state university system, has filed a federal lawsuit against the agency and two of its top-ranking executives, alleging the defendants have “engaged in discrimination based on gender and family status and retaliation.”
Plaintiff Terese Meagher has been an employee of the Fund since June 2009. In addition to the Fund itself, general manager Robert Haelen—who is also a member of the SUNY Chancellor’s cabinet—and deputy counsel Jo Anne Di Stefano are named as defendants.
As associate counsel, Meagher oversaw “threatened and pending litigation” and advised the Fund on other legal issues. She also communicated with the Fund’s board of trustees “and at times acted as secretary at trustee meetings,” the lawsuit says.
Meagher, who has two young children, “carried an extremely burdensome workload” following the departure of her “long-time supervisor” in March 2015, working “excessive hours,” often “into the night and weekends,” the lawsuit says.
In July of that year, Meagher met with Haelen to request “his assistance in addressing” her long workweek and its impact “on her parenting obligations,” the suit says. She also “raised the issue of compensation for excessive hours that she had been working,” pointing to an intra-agency resolution “specifically providing that Management Confidential employees who worked in excess of 37.5 hours per week would be entitled to credit for the excess time.”
According to the lawsuit, when Di Stefano was named deputy counsel in August 2015, becoming Meagher’s “direct supervisor,” Meagher told Haelen that “she wanted to return to her original 80 [percent] schedule,” a four-days-per-week routine she maintained for two years after a return from maternity leave in November 2009. She also advised the new deputy counsel of the same “work-family concerns” she’d already shared with Haelen.
In December 2015, Meagher learned that her request pertaining to compensatory time was denied, the lawsuit says, but her superiors at least seemed amenable to a follow-up proposal “to use her own time to take off” a few hours per week, a modified scheduled she adopted the following month. Di Stefano also requested, in substance, a worklist, which Meagher provided.
But by late January 2016, relations between Meagher and Di Stefano apparently soured: “Notwithstanding Defendants’ professed approval of Plaintiff’s requested time off and promise to address Plaintiff’s workload, Di Stefano reversed course again immediately after Plaintiff began with her time off and became increasingly hostile and demeaning toward Plaintiff,” the lawsuit says. Di Stefano told Meagher she was “personally and professionally offended” by the proffered worklist, and, the following month, told her that “she had never approved the time off.”
According to the lawsuit, Di Stefano told Meagher in substance that “she works every night and weekend to what is likely the destruction of her personal life,” adding, “[W]ouldn’t it be nice if we could go home and eat dinner with our families?” Meagher found the comments demeaning.
More friction followed, and by mid-March, Meagher’s “mental state was deteriorating,” the lawsuit says. But when she advised Haelen of this alleged “bullying by Di Stefano,” the general manager “attempted to dissuade her from filing a complaint.” Notwithstanding this pressure, Meagher submitted a complaint to the director of human resources.
“Instead of promptly investigating, Defendants proceeded to take a number of retaliatory actions against Plaintiff, while continuing to subject her to a hostile work environment,” the lawsuit says. “Among other things, she was isolated and excluded from meetings and communications with staff necessary to perform her job functions. Defendants, moreover, made no meaningful investigation.”
The ordeal “caused great harm” to Meagher’s “physical and mental health,” the lawsuit says. Meagher has been on medical leave since June 2016, “forced to exhaust her vacation and sick time and to receive reduced compensation while exhausting her ‘sick bank’ time. She faces the loss of benefits, loss of accrual of her pension benefits and other financial harms as a direct result of Defendants’ conduct.”
Meagher’s attorney declined to comment. Haelen and Di Stefano did not respond to a request for comment. Reached Wednesday morning, the general manager’s office told The Alt that both executives were on vacation. A SUNY Systems Administration spokesperson also did not respond to a request for comment.
Read the lawsuit below.