Saratoga County

Former HR director suing Saratoga County chairman Kusnierz for ‘creating hostile work environment’

FILE - Chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Theodore Kusnierz in Saratoga County in January 2021. 
PHOTOGRAPHER:

FILE - Chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Theodore Kusnierz in Saratoga County in January 2021. 

SARATOGA COUNTY – In court papers, former county human resources director Margaret McNamara said she saw a psychiatrist to deal with “extreme emotional trauma and distress” as a result of losing her job last year, allegedly in retaliation for when she filed an internal harassment complaint against county Board of Supervisors Chairman Theodore Kusnierz Jr.

Attorneys for the terminated human resources director recently filed a lawsuit on McNamara’s behalf in U.S. District Court under the Civil Rights Act.

McNamara’s suit names Kusnierz, the county board of supervisors, the county and County Administrator Steve Bulger as co-defendants.

The suit, which claims Kusnierz created a hostile work environment, was first reported by the Times Union.

The lawsuit said Kusnierz, as a means to harass McNamara, undermined her authority by suddenly excluding her from biweekly department head meetings, and he didn’t appoint her to the Labor Management Committee nor as HIPAA or affirmative action officer, even though the HR director historically held those roles.

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It said Kusnierz “blamed” McNamara for issues regarding his registration with the state retirement system, when he asserted McNamara “doesn’t know how to do her job,” the lawsuit read.

It further claims Kusnierz threatened her job on two occasions, intimidated her in public settings and humiliated her on multiple occasions, relative to a plan to increase county employees’ pay during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, the county decided to pay essential workers time and a half, but McNamara didn’t receive the additional compensation.

To harass McNamara, the lawsuit read, Kusnierz made a statement published in the Times Union stating that time and a half compensation should be reserved for those who put themselves and their families at risk.

The TU reported Kusnierz said it would be “absolutely outrageous” to pay someone like McNamara time and a half.

McNamara said in court papers she found Kusnierz’s statement in the publication “shocking” and emotionally distressing.

She filed the internal complaint against Kusnierz in April 2020.

Employed by the county from 2009 until she was terminated in July 2021, McNamara has requested a jury trial and damages, back pay, interest, costs and attorney fees.

She was appointed county HR director in May 2015 for a six-year appointment that ended May 2021.

An attorney who was paid by the county to conduct an investigation about McNamara’s claims found Kusnierz did not discriminate or harass her, the suit said. However, the report did find Kusnierz’s conduct “unprofessional” and recommended he be reminded of the county’s harassment policy.

The lawsuit said McNamara’s performance was exemplary and she received positive feedback regarding her performance prior to 2020.

The action said Kusnierz referred to McNamara as “madame, in derogatory tones.”

After Kusnierz’s statement in the TU, McNamara requested an intermediary for when Kusnierz needed to address the HR department. She requested that Kusnierz go through Bulger, the county chairman, or county attorney.

The next day, on March 27, 2020, Kusnierz called for McNamara’s resignation during a county meeting. He allegedly told then County Administrator Spencer Hellwig and then chairman of the board, Preston Allen, that McNamara “better apologize or this would not go away.”

McNamara said a report by Jones Hacker, the law firm the the county hired to conduct an independent investigation into additional pay the county gave to first responders during the pandemic, found there was no reason to terminate McNamara.

The county board formed a committee to review the report, and Kusnierz recused himself from membership because of McNamara’s complaint against him.

But the lawsuit called this a “ruse” because Kusnierz attended every committee meeting and was involved in discussions regarding potential discipline.

In June 2021, the board appointed Scot Chamberlain of Halfmoon to succeed McNamara as HR director. Twelve supervisors voted to retain McNamara, while nine voted to end her employment and appoint Chamberlain. But the nine board members carried more authority in a weighted vote of larger towns.

McNamara also alleges the county reneged on an agreement to pay her accrued sick time in exchange for her remaining in the job through June 2021 so that she could sign documents on behalf of the county for its municipalities and school districts.

The lawsuit said the county told her she had to sign a release of claims document to receive the sick pay. She refused to sign it.

With McNamara less than two years from qualifying for state retirement benefits, various members of the county board inquired about reassigning McNamara – specifically to education and community relations coordinator for the county Mental Health Center.

But the suggestion never materialized: Bulger, the administrator, told Commissioner Michael Prezioso that McNamara was “trouble” and the commissioner should not offer her the job, court papers said.

McNamara’s complaint was filed by Mark Walsh and Nancy Williamson of Albany. The county is represented by Timothy Lambrecht of Albany.

Lambrecht said in court papers the defendants are currently determining whether they want independent representation in court.

Kusnierz, supervisor of the town of Moreau, and county board chairman since January 2021, declined to comment through the county’s spokeswoman, Christine Rush.

“Out of respect for the judicial process, the County will not discuss ongoing litigation,” Rush said.

Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.

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