A former employee of the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Office has filed a lawsuit against the county and sheriff administration, claiming she was wrongfully terminated, subjected to a hostile work environment and sexually harassed by Sheriff Dominic Dagostino.
Ileen Varno, who worked in the sheriff’s Civil Division for nearly 20 years, is suing the county, Dagostino, Undersheriff James Barrett and Patrol Lt. Michael Geraci, claiming she was subjected to a hostile and sexist work environment and was fired while on medical leave in retaliation for reporting the abuse.
“The work environment at the Schenectady County Office of the Sheriff has long been a ‘boy’s club’ in which insults toward women and disrespect toward women is the norm,” the Feb. 8 lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit comes just weeks after a notice of claim was filed last month.
The lawsuit claims that women were “routinely” referred to as “b******” and “c****” by all three sheriff supervisors, and that Dagostino and Barrett would refer to former county manager, Kathleen Rooney, as “the c*** on the sixth floor.”
Dagostino, for years, had called Varno “‘honey’ or ‘darling’ or other similar names” and would frequently request that Varno rub his back, shoulder or neck, or massage his head, demands Varno felt obligated to comply with despite feeling uncomfortable, according to the lawsuit.
“Plaintiff felt obligated to give in to these demands even though it made her uncomfortable,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff has never seen or heard of the Sheriff asking any men that work for him to engage in this behavior.”
In an interview Thursday, Varno said the harassment began around five years ago but escalated as time went on. She added that she felt powerless to stop it and that others experiencing similar situations were too afraid to speak out.
“He’s your boss,” she said. “What do you do?”
Varno said she had no issues with Dagostino when he was first elected in 2010, noting that she felt safe around him because her grandmother was good friends with his grandmother. But over time, the sheriff became emboldened by his power and the harassment worsened because no one dared challenge him.
“He answers to no one but the public and quite frankly he knew that,” Varno said.
Varno reached a breaking point last April following months of abuse from Geraci, who began overseeing the Civil Office in late 2020.
According to the lawsuit, the lieutenant began asking Varno and other female staff at the Civil Division to complete paperwork that was supposed to be filed by patrol officers. Geraci and Barrett referred to the paperwork as a “woman’s work,” according to the lawsuit.
When Varno complained, her job duties were stripped and her hours were altered. Eventually, her title as head of the Civil Division was taken away, according to the lawsuit.
Dagostino, Barrett and Geraci could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
But County Attorney Christopher Gardner said he spoke to the sheriff and his staff, who assured him the claims were false.
“I reviewed the complaint with the sheriff and his staff and they have assured me there is not an accurate statement contained anywhere in that complainant on any issue,” he said.
The lawsuit is seeking an unspecified amount in monetary damages, but Varno said her main goal is to prevent further harassment, adding that the same conditions she worked under still exist today.
“I’m the voice that I guess needs to be heard because everyone else is afraid,” she said.
Varno claims the issue came to a head when she was on COVID-19 medical leave, which required her to stay home until April 7, 2021.
Barrett allegedly told Varno to return to work despite the order because “she was vaccinated,” according to the lawsuit.
Varno objected and eventually began the process of filing a workplace violence complaint with the county on April 14, as harassment over her COVID leave continued. Around the same time, Varno began seeking treatment for work-related stress, according to the lawsuit.
She eventually requested a medical leave “due to the stress,” which the lawsuit notes was granted.
But on April 19, 2021, five days after Varno began looking into filing a workplace violence complaint, Geraci told members of the Civil Division that Varno no longer worked in the office and began packing up her desk, according to the lawsuit.
Varno was notified that her position had been eliminated a day later despite union protections that afforded “required progressive discipline to terminate her for cause,” the lawsuit states.
The county legislature voted to eliminate the position a month later, at its May 11 meeting, at the request of Dagostino, according to a review of the meeting agenda.
The position of “civil office specialist” was eliminated and a new position of “senior account clerk” was created.
“This office is requesting the abolishment of the current Senior Civil Office Specialist position and the creation of a Senior Account Clerk position within the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Office Civil division,” reads a letter from Dagostinio requisition the change addressed to County Manager Rory Fluman dated April 21, 2021.
“The creation of this position will be a cost savings to the county of approximately $17,000 annually,” the letter continues. “By doing so this will allow this office to continue to effectively meet the needs of the civil office and the residents of Schenectady County.”
Varno said she believes her position was eliminated because she spoke up. The complaint was filed some time around April 27, 2021, according to court documents.
Gardner, however, said the claim was fully investigated and was determined to be unfounded. Varno, he said, refused to cooperate with the investigation and stopped coming to work.
He declined to say whether Varno was on leave at the time her position was eliminated as the lawsuit claims.
“We do not believe she was harassed in any way and we’re looking forward to vigorously defend the lawsuit,” Gardner said.
But Varno said the county failed to follow up on her complaint despite repeated requests.
Sometime after she was terminated, Varno said, the county reached out to offer her a position at Glendale Home or as a branch manger of the Mont Pleasant Library, though she said she didn’t understand why she was removed and not her harassers.
“I spoke up and they cleared off my desk,” Varno said.
She added that her removal is proof the county is aware of the working conditions at the sheriff’s department and relocating her is nothing more than an effort to keep her quiet.
“I’ve been in the civil office for 19½ years. I’ve never had any disciplines. I’ve never been talked to about my work or my work ethic. I’ve never not performed my job,” she said. “And now, after 19½ years, why are you creating a position at Glendale nursing home? Oh, because I said I can’t work under the conditions I’ve been working under.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.