Former Oneida High School principal files complaint against district


ONEIDA — The former principal of Oneida High School has filed a complaint against the Oneida school district with the state Division of Human Rights, claiming marital status discrimination and retaliation plus disability-based retaliation.

The complaint is by Brian Gallagher, who said he was principal for over 14 years before his position was abolished effective June 30 and replaced by a grade K-12 executive principal position for which his application was rejected.

In addition to naming the school district in documents dated Sept. 5, the complaint names Oneida district Superintendent Mary-Margaret Zehr plus Board of Education members Melinda Bowe, John Elberson, Robert Group, James Maio and Jennifer Parker along with former member Alicia Lippert.

Zehr could not be reached for comment today.

The complaint was filed on behalf of Gallagher by attorney John Valentino of the Bousquet Holstein PLLC law firm office in Syracuse. Valentino said today Gallagher seeks appointment to the new executive principal position "for which he is eminently qualified," plus he "will seek damages for the discrimination, harassment and retaliation he has endured."

Regarding claims of marital status discrimination and retaliation, Gallagher said in the complaint that he divorced his wife in 2008 and in 2012 married school district teacher Jill Gallagher. Since then, he said, "I have been ostracized and treated unfairly by certain administrators, teachers, the Board of Education, and Superintendent Zehr, culminating in the abolishment of my high school principal position on June 30, 2019."

He added that since Zehr was hired, "I have been harassed, received counseling memos on issues that did not warrant counseling, and treated poorly compared to similarly situated employees, because of my status as a divorced and remarried individual, resulting in the elimination of my position and the rejection of my application for the new position." He added "upon information and belief, at least one other former employee suffered similar mistreatment because he divorced and remarried, and he too was terminated by the district under the pretext of a business decision."

In addition, for Gallagher's claims of disability-based retaliation, he said he underwent cervical spine surgery in March 2016 and returned to work in May 2016. In October 2016, he said, a student brought a knife to the high school and Zehr decided to "allow the student to return to school despite the student's repeated and known propensity for violent conduct." On or about Dec. 2, 2016, he said, that student assaulted him, "fracturing my fusion surgery site and sixth cervical vertebrae."

Gallahger said he "continued working through that time," but "from December 2016 through June 2017, the district incorrectly docked my sick time while I took days for medical appointments, and never informed me of my Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights." As a result of the student assault, he said, he underwent a second surgery in September 2017 to correct the fracture and fusion site and "was placed on 100% disability by my neurosurgeon, with an anticipated return to work on Jan. 2, 2018. This procedure was preapproved by the Workers' Compensation Board."

However, Gallagher said the district "breached my employment contract with respect to Workers' Compensation, FMLA, and use of sick time." He said he received a call on Dec. 4, 2017 from Zehr and Assistant Superintendent James Rowley, "indicating that they erred on my FMLA leave and would start docking my sick time through December."

Gallagher said he indicated to Zehr four days later that he "disagreed with her interpretation of the contractual language covering administrators who had been assaulted in the workplace." He said he was unable to reach an agreement with the district on the issue, and "I was forced to file a grievance with the district on Dec. 14, 2017...and then later to file an action with PERB (state Public Employment Relations Board), which is now pending."

Gallagher said he returned to work on Jan. 2, 2018, as planned. He said he has complained to the district numerous times regarding "discrimination based on my disability," and following a July 2018 meeting with Zehr he sent a letter including "my complaints of a hostile work environment...."

Noting the district's restructuring in early 2019 that included eliminating the high school principal position and replacing it with a dual role of K-12 executive principal, Gallagher said he applied for the new position after his position was eliminated June 30. But Zehr informed him July 24 that he was not selected for the job, he added.

"Given my faithful and competent performance as high school principal, this decision appears to be based on marital status discrimination, and in retaliation for my complaints about marital status discrimination and disability discrimination," Gallagher said.

Gallagher's complaint cited violations of the Human Rights Law of the State of New York, along with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Once the school district and the individuals named are formally served with the complaint, said Valentino, they will have an opportunity to respond. Gallagher then will have an opportunity to rebut, he said, and "the case will move forward through an investigation" conducted by the Division of Human Rights. Once the division determines there is probable cause to support Gallagher's complaint, he added, the case would proceed to a hearing before an administrative law judge.


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