SARATOGA SPRINGS — A former executive vice president at Empire State College has sued the Saratoga Springs-based state college for $1.5 million, claiming he faced discrimination due to his age and ethnicity prior to being terminated last fall.
Joseph Garcia of Wilton says in a discrimination lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Albany County that he faced discrimination from the college due to his age — he is 63 years old — and was the only Hispanic among the top administrators at the college, which offers remote classes to non-traditional students at 34 locations around the state.
The college denies the charges, saying Garcia was terminated because of concerns about his management of the departments he oversaw.
Garcia was hired as executive vice president for administration of Empire State College in July 2017. Immediately prior to that he was vice president for finance and business and chief financial officer at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina. He is also a 28-year U.S. Air Force veteran.
In that role, Garcia was to oversee the college’s $82 million annual budget and finances, as well as the offices of human resources, information technology, facilities, financial aid and student accounts, and other college-wide administrative duties.
But the lawsuit alleges that his duties began to be reduced and his office bypassed after James Malatras became president of the college in July 2019.
Paul E. Davenport of Albany, the lawyer representing Garcia, said, “They were both bypassing him and claimed wrongly he was not performing his duties.”
The $1.5 million claim for damages includes “loss of front pay, loss of back pay, loss of benefits, mental anguish and emotional distress.”
Malatras has been a close adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and since March has been working closely with the Governor’s Office on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, although he remains president of the college. His name has been floated as a possible new chancellor for the State University of New York. SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson will be stepping down in September to become president of Ohio State University.
“I’ve known Jim for more than 15 years and his integrity and professionalism are without question,” said Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo. “We stand with him.”
The lawsuit alleges that Malatras “engaged in policies and practices which willfully harassed and discriminated against and discharged/constructively discharged [Garcia] based on his age, race and national origin.”
Among other things, the lawsuit charges that Malatras had the college budget director — younger and non-Hispanic — report directly to him, rather than to Garcia, and stripped away his budget and other duties. He was eventually replaced with a younger, non-Hispanic administrator, according to the lawsuit.
According to the college, Garcia was replaced by Beth Berlin, former executive deputy commissioner and interim commissioner of the state Education Department, who was responsible for a more than $300 million budget, 700 school districts, and more than 2.3 million students in New York state.
“At all times relevant, the plaintiff was qualified for his position and performed his position in an exemplary manner,” the lawsuit states.
College leadership disputes that characterization of his performance, saying there were issues, including lack of campus safety plans
In a prepared statement on Tuesday, the college said “these are baseless accusations of a former employee who was let go for poor performance, ignoring ethics-related complaints and neglect of official duties.”
“SUNY Empire does not tolerate discrimination in any form and has taken a proactive approach to improving diversity and equity among its faculty, staff and students,” the statement said.