By Bera Dunau Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — An Oneonta man suing the MeadWestvaco Corporation under the Americans with Disabilities Act is preparing to add wrongful termination to his complaint.
Robert M. Vance and his attorney, Peter M. Hartnett, held a news conference at Vance's house Wednesday, detailing the substance of his complaint.
Vance was born with a high degree of neural hearing loss. This has caused him to be hearing impaired, and he has a corresponding speech impediment.
Vance was hired by MeadWestvaco to work in their Sidney plant in 2004. According to the complaint, the company was aware of Vance's disability at the time they hired him.
“There's never been an issue with his job performance,” Hartnett said.
The genesis of Vance's suit occurred from 2004-2007. Vance claims that he noticed that he wasn't being rotated to different job areas like his co-workers were, and that his efforts to rectify this situation were stymied.
He also says that he was subject to a hostile work environment because of his disability.
“I was called a safety issue by the employees in my department,” said Vance.
Because of this, Vance filed a charge with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC. This resulted in a mediation agreement which specified, among other things, that Vance be trained in all areas of his department.
Vance contends that this agreement was not followed, and that he has been subjected to harassment and retaliation by the company. He filed a second EEOC charge on or about Feb. 13, 2009, and an amended charge March 18, 2010.
The EEOC issued its dismissal of this second case Sept. 13, 2011, not taking a position either way on the claim, and informing Vance that he now had the right to sue.
On Feb. 16, 2012, Vance filed suit in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of New York. While his suit was ongoing, Vance continued to work at MeadWestvaco.
According to Vance, on June 3, 2013, he was informed by a co-worker that a temporary employee had complained that another employee had been sexually harassing her the Friday before. Worried that the placing of this employee in his work area was a set-up, Vance asked that the employee be moved to a different part of the plant.
Vance said his supervisor's response was to suggest moving Vance instead — and place a temporary worker with only a few days of experience in the position he had been working.
“I said 'I feel that's a borderline decision',” said Vance.
The department manager ended up overruling the supervisor, and Vance was allowed to continue in his position, while the temporary employee was moved.
Vance said that he used no foul language and made no threatening actions during this discussion, although he may have raised his voice to speak over the radio.
“I was not hostile to her (the supervisor),” he said.
On July 5, however, Vance was suspended with pay for violating the company's violence prevention program and policy, and was terminated July 21.
“It's retaliation, they've been after me ever since 2007,” said Vance.
Vance also said proper procedures were not followed for his termination. His union was not involved in the investigation of the incident, and was not informed about it until his termination.
Vance's Union, CWA Local 14164, is supporting Vance in his effort to get his job back, and has filed a union grievance to restore him to his job.
“We're grateful for what they're doing now,” Hartnett said.
Hartnett will be making a motion to amend Vance's complaint to include wrongful termination.
In his lawsuit, Vance is seeking approximately $200,000 in compensatory damages and approximately $200,000 in punitive damages.
Vance says he's suing not just to advocate for himself but for the other workers at the plant as well, as he doesn't want others to be subjected to a hostile work environment or retaliation.
“I want everybody to be treated equally, disabled or not,” he said.
He's also unsure if he wants to return to work at MeadWestvaco, should he win his suit.
“I'm afraid to go back," he said, "because I don't know what's next.”
MeadWestvaco did not return a request from The Daily Star for a comment on this story.