Woman Says She Was Fired for Reporting Discrimination Against Cancer-Patient Boss [Updated]

You'd think New York City's Department for the Aging would be sensitive to issues of illness and disability. But according to one former employee, it isn't — she says she was fired when she reported that her boss had been discriminated against for having cancer. Now she's suing the city.

According to court documents filed on January 12, Elizabeth Schneewind worked for the Dept. for the Aging (DFTA) through a program called ReServe, which places people over 55 in jobs with the city. Schneewind worked there for four years, and according to her suit always got "excellent evaluations." Then her supervisor, Catherine Giblin, was fired without warning. Schneewind's suit reads:

Plaintiff was concerned by the news of Giblin's termination for several reasons: (1) it was her understanding that Giblin had several serious medical conditions, and that DFTA was not accommodating her need to see a cancer specialist. Plaintiff believed this was a factor in the decision to terminate Giblin; (2) she was aware of Giblin's family's reliance on her income, and she was being dismissed without income supplement or due process; (3) she was appalled by the cavalier treatment of dispatching Giblin, who had served the City for many years, without any notice, and in a humiliating manner; (4) in her four (4) years of working with Giblin, she observed her to be working conscientiously and effectively [...]

Schneewind shared these concerns with ReServe, but got no response. So she wrote Mayor Bloomberg, saying "that Giblin had serious health issues and she had been denied permission to take time for necessary medical care. She also expressed her belief that the termination may have been political." She also sent a copy of the letter to DFTA Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli (above). Soon after, Schneewind says a supervisor at ReServe told her "you should have thought before you wrote that letter." Then another ReServe employee told her she was being fired from the DFTA because "the Commissioner wants you out." Then she was fired from ReServe — an employee told her it was because she'd written to Bloomberg.

Now Schneewind is suing the DFTA, ReServe, the city of New York, and Barrios-Paoli, alleging that they violated both the First Amendment and New York City Human Rights Law. In particular, she says her right to free speech was violated, and that "the termination of her employment was in retaliation for raising claims of disability discrimination." She's asking for her job back, as well as lost wages and compensatory damages. Neither ReServe nor the DFTA has yet responded to my request for comment, so I don't know their side of the story. But if Schneewind's side is true, then not only was the DFTA discriminating against an employee because she had cancer — they also tried to cover up that discrimination by firing the person who brought it to light. And for a city agency that's supposed to look out for the interests of aging people — who themselves have an increased risk of cancer — this is pretty upsetting.

Update: DFTA Director of Public Affairs Christopher Miller got back to me with this comment:

We have not seen papers related to this alleged lawsuit and therefore cannot comment on its content. I should add, too, that ReServists are not employees of the City.

As background, ReServe is a nonprofit that matches continuing professionals age 55 and older with organizations that need their expertise. These organizations include nonprofits, public institutions, and government agencies. As I mentioned previously, "ReServists" are not employees of the City. Through ReServe Inc. ReServists are matched with various agencies on short-term, time-limited projects that utilize their expertise and experience.