Terminated IT worker sues Norwalk Public Schools
NORWALK, Conn. — A former Norwalk Public Schools employee has sued the district, the Board of Education and the City, alleging sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and retaliation.
Lindsay Lewis, in her lawsuit filed Dec. 23 in Stamford Superior Court, alleges her male colleagues used explicit sexual language and alleges one of them persistently sought a romantic relationship with her.
NPS declined to comment on the lawsuit. Michelle Woods Matthews, Norwalk Director of Communications for the City, also had no comment.
Lewis, a Norwalker, was hired as a middle school paraeducator in September 2020, with duties including operating a technology help desk for parents and staff, according to the legal complaint filed by Attorney Matthew Paradisi of Cicchioello & Cicchioello, a Hartford law firm. Assistant Superintendent of Digital Learning and Innovation Ralph Valenzisi was her direct supervisor.
Lewis “was met with cold attitudes that left her feeling isolated” during training sessions, according to the complaint, which states that she asked trainer Cathy Orgovan about it and was told it was because “you’re a girl and you’re pretty.”
A male co-worker in his late 50s, Larry Danforth, referred to a sexual act during an April 2021 training session, causing Orgovan to laugh, the complaint continues. Lewis felt “extremely uncomfortable” but didn’t speak up because both of them were longtime NPS employees.
The complaint alleges that Danforth told Lewis she wouldn’t be asked to “lift boxes or anything” because of her gender. He frequently initiated “long drawn-out conversations” on topics including the “law of attraction” and “offensive stories related to his wife and/or marriage,” the complaint states.
Over the ensuing five months, Danforth frequently commented on Lewis’ appearance, the lawsuit states, offering examples:
- “You’re obviously a very attractive girl.”
- “When you were leaning over your computer, I was able to see your bra.”
- “Look at you. Turn around so I can see your matching outfit.”
Evan Sacks, a co-worker in his 40s, behaved in a similar way, according to the complaint. He asked Lewis via text how she felt about “demi-sexuals,” a term she was unfamiliar with until she looked it up.
Explicit text messages continued for about two months, including these two:
- “You don’t want chicks to think you s— d— at f–in’ p—.”
- “At some point I got tired of playing bodyguard for this hot mess and I told her to stop acting like a dumb bitch and the truth is I did mean it.”
Sacks asked her if she wanted to go on a date, the lawsuit states. She rejected him and he “indicated he would be hostile.” According to the complaint, he said he was “crushed” and would struggle to get over it; he advised her not to get stuck in the NPS tech department as it was an “unfriendly” place with a “deficient in the soft skill” department.
Sacks continued to make misogynistic remarks and referred to a Valenzisi administrative assistant as “cuntzilla,” the complaint states. He thought of women as “subordinates,” spoke admiringly of male gorillas forcefully mating with female gorillas and “sarcastically referred to gender as a ‘social construct.’”
Continued harassment included him sitting behind her so their backs touched at a July 2021 NPS social gathering, then following her and telling her he was “crazy” about her, the complaint states.
Attempts to reach Danforth and Sacks, who still work at the district according to the NPS website, were unsuccessful. An email sent to their NPS addresses drew no reply. Their union did not reply to a request for comment.
The complaint states that supervisors subsequently told Lewis she’d be perfect for a position in the new Family Welcome Center but that September, Orgovan convinced Valenzisi that her work was full of errors. Valensizi told Lewis wouldn’t be considered for the job, according to the complaint, which connects this to age discrimination as the person who was hired was in their 50s and younger people were not considered.
The complaint doesn’t state what Lewis’ age is.
Although Lewis told Valenzisi that Orgovan had been bullying her, Valenzisi made Orgavan her direct supervisor.
Lewis complained to Human Resources. Then-NPS Director of Human Resources Lissette Colón and Michael Patterson, then-NPS Organizational Development & Employee Relations Specialist, encouraged Lewis to apply for an open HR position, according to the complaint.
Colón and Patterson have left the district, according to NPS Media Relations Specialist Emily Morgan.
When Colón told Lewis that she’d gotten “great feedback” from her co-workers, Valenzisi looked angry “and began violently shaking his leg,” the complaint states.
Valensizi shifted Lewis’ job category to “technician,” limiting her professional development opportunities, and made Director of Technology David Hopp her direct supervisor, the complaint states. Hopp and Patterson then told Lewis that two co-workers had complained about her, alleging she’d been hostile. Lewis explained that she was frustrated “at repeated and continued discriminatory treatment” and Patterson relayed that Lewis was a valuable employee that the district didn’t want to lose.
Lewis filed a formal complaint Sept. 24, 2021. In response, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella hired Attorney Natalia Sieira Millan, the lawsuit states. The complaint alleges that Millan was expected to conduct “one-sided, biased investigation which would unjustifiably downplay any actual allegations of unlawful harassment or discrimination” and provide cover for NPS to terminate Lewis.
Lewis was isolated in a temporary office and her “job duties essentially disappeared,” the lawsuit states. Hopp was “verbally hostile” and in one interaction, Lewis began uncontrollably crying.
Millan delivered an 11-page report “replete with biased, myopic, and self-serving findings which ignored most, if not all, of Plaintiff’s legitimate complaints.”
The lawsuit includes an excerpt, in which Millan questioned Lewis’ credibility, saying the evidence did not support her allegations against Sacks, the alleged would-be romantic partner, and that “multiple sources” reported that she had mistreated him more than once. Millan said the two had a friendly relationship outside the workplace and that she “intimidated, belittled and offended” him.
Lewis’ attorney said this was a reference to her rejecting his romantic advances.
On Oct. 25, 2021, Lewis was told she needed to affirm Millan’s findings and strive to work harmoniously with her colleagues, according to the lawsuit. Lewis refused and was put on administrative leave; still refusing to confirm that her complaints had no merit, she was terminated Oct. 27, 2021.
An excerpt from Colón’s explanation of “just cause” states that Lewis “was a disruptive presence in the IT department and constantly antagonized her colleagues and impeded the Department’s productivity.” Her colleagues “credibly asserted she had attacked members of the Department, used team meetings to express frustrations over her salary and title, created a hostile work environment, inhibited communication with the IT team, engaged in inappropriate discussions about new hires, and refused to speak with colleagues.”
Lewis’ lawyer counters that she was called “disruptive” because she complained about the alleged treatment by the two men , gender-based pay disparities and the work environment. She also complained because Valensizi didn’t conduct “any type of annual performance review or evaluation” but did so for the men, and that she’d been denied “any performance growth opportunities for advancement.”
Lewis seeks financial damages, reinstatement of her job or front pay, and attorneys’ fees.
Lewis v NPS BoE 22-1223 complaint
NancyOnNorwalk requires full names from commenters.
For more information, go here.