A woman who says the Village of Oak Lawn fired her because her supervisor wanted to hire someone younger is suing the village for age discrimination.
Diane Cipolla filed an age discrimination complaint in Cook County Circuit Court on Feb. 14. Cipolla is seeking $50,000 and other damages from the village.
According to the complaint, Cipolla worked for the village as a business regulation officer in the Finance Department from 1996 to 2008. She was the oldest employee in her department and one of the oldest employees working for the village.
The complaint says Cipolla had a good work record and received “excellent performance reviews.” She was just days away from her 60th birthday when she was terminated on April 23, 2008 for “budgetary concerns.”
Cipolla alleges that starting in December 2007 up until her termination by the village, her boss, Finance Director Brian Hanigan, harassed her for her practice of taking her earned vacation in December, January and February. She also states in her complaint that during the department’s busy period, Hanigan refused her requests for overtime, while allowing younger employees to work overtime. Her previous supervisor granted such requests.
The complaint alleges that in April 2008 when the village board met in executive session, Hanigan told board members “that he wanted to get rid of Cipolla so that he could hire someone younger.”
The Open Meetings Act allows municipal bodies, school boards and other agencies that receive public money to meet in executive or closed session to discuss sensitive employee relations and litigation.
Cipolla’s attorney, Dana Kurtz, said her client has a witness who was at the village board’s executive session on April 10, 2008, who can confirm Hanigan’s statement.
“The exact comment in executive session was ‘she’s too old,’” Kurtz said.
A few weeks later, Cipolla was terminated. The complaint says that Cipolla’s duties were given to “a much younger woman with little experience.”
Kurtz would not identify the witness attending the executive session. The village board’s executive sessions are attended by Oak Lawn’s elected officials, including the mayor, clerk and trustees, the village manager, and when appropriate, other village employees.
The Oak Lawn Village Board’s executive sessions are taped and minutes are recorded. Elected officials can decide later whether to release the minutes of closed meetings.
Kurtz said she has not yet seen copies of Cipolla’s performance appraisals and work records.
“We won’t have subpoena power until we filed a complaint, which we have done, or during discovery,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz also conceded that the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the state agency charged with enforcing the Illinois Human Rights Act with respect to unlawful discrimination based on race, religious, gender, age or sexual orientation, found Cipolla’s charge “lacking in substantial evidence.”
Before someone can sue under the Illinois Human Rights Act, the state requires those who believe their rights were violated to file charges with the IDHR. The state agency offers mediation to resolve discriminatory charges outside of court and conducts fact-finding investigations into discrimination claims.
The IDHR offers findings of “lacking in substantial evidence” and “substantial evidence” in discriminatory charges. The state agency receives an average of 30,000 inquiries and files 4,000 charges annually.
Kurtz called it a “procedural process” that has no bearing on the case.
“(The IDHR) didn’t interview any of the witnesses that we gave them,” she said. “It’s just a procedural process in order to get to court. (The IDHR) is overburdened in most cases they don’t investigate.”
Kurtz said the reason why the lawsuit was filed almost three years after the fact is because the process of going through the IDHR can take two to three years.
The attorney also said the village refused to produce the tape of the April 10, 2008 executive session to the IDHR during the time the agency was reviewing Cipolla’s charge.
Kurtz is the same attorney who represented village firefighter Sharon Januszewski in her federal lawsuit against the village for sexual harassment. That case was settled out of court for $850,000.
Terrance Goulee, an attorney for the law firm Querry and Harrow, the village’s legal counsel, said the village intends to defend itself.
“The case was dismissed by IDHR,” Goulee said. “The employee (Hanigan) denies the allegations made against him, and others will support the denial.”
Mayor Dave Heilmann said he was aware of Cipolla’s lawsuit and described her as a “nice person.”
Heilmann recalled the village board meeting on April 10, 2008 before it went into executive session as a “huge meeting” with over 300 residents that met in the parking lot. That month the village laid off three firefighters.
“I can tell you flat out that Diane Cipolla wasn’t terminated because of age,” Heilmann said. “I’m hearing what’s going on and it’s just not true. It did not happen.”
The mayor added that at the time the village was looking at ways to be more efficient with fewer employees. Since 2008, he said, the village has cut about 10 percent of its 300-member work force.
It’s up to the village manager to make hiring and firing decisions. The complaint says that Hanigan “made the decision, or at the very least directed the decision to terminate Cipolla’s employment with the village.”
The complaint does not name Hanigan individually as a defendant. Kurtz said that in discrimination cases, the law allows her client to sue only the village.
Cipolla, a resident of Oak Lawn, is now 62. Kurtz said she has not been able to find employment.
“In this economy and because she is older, it is harder to find a job,” Kurtz said.