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Ex-worker files discrimination complaint against Auburn Community Hospital, former doctor

An ex-worker at Auburn Community Hospital's intensive care unit this week filed a complaint against the hospital with the state Division of Human Rights alleging sexual discrimination and a hostile work environment.

The complaint, from Dan Dennis Jr., who worked as a nurse practitioner at the ICU from July 2017 to July 2018, primarily involves complaints against former ACH physician Dr. Jeremy Barnett, the same doctor accused of misconduct — including behavior that endangered patients — in two lawsuits already filed by former ACH doctors.

The law firm representing Dennis, Gattuso & Ciotoli, of Fayetteville, is the same firm representing both doctors in those suits.

Barnett no longer works at the hospital. The hospital's administration, in both a letter to The Citizen from CEO Scott Berlucchi and in prepared statements, have denied that patient care was ever compromised, and noted that the state approved a corrective plan required after a review related to Barnett's behavior. It has also characterized the lawsuits as "unproven" allegations.

Hospital officials could not be reached Wednesday for comment on this story.

According to Dennis' complaint, while working as Barnett's “right-hand-man,” Dennis said he was subjected to “numerous acts of sexual harassment, unwarranted public ridicule, and demeaning conduct in the workplace,” something the complaint said was never investigated or responded to by hospital administration.

Instances of sexual harassment from Barnett described in the complaint include making derisive sexual remarks about patients Barnett and Dennis were treating, making “unprofessional and discomforting” comments about his own sex life, and spreading rumors that the pair were dating.

Barnett also allegedly created a hostile work environment in which he would berate Dennis for things such as offering his own opinions on medical issues, according to the complaint. Dennis said Barnett would often “fly off the handle, yell and scream, acting like a crazy person.”

According to the complaint, Barnett would frequently insult Dennis in front of other staff members. Dennis would also receive harassing phone calls from Barnett outside of normal work hours or at work if Dennis was away from Barnett for “more than a minute or two.”

The complaint also alleges that hospital administrators, specifically CEO Scott Berlucchi and Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Riccio, effectively enabled Barnett's behavior by informing him when complaints were made against him and by whom. In addition to the hospital, Dennis' complaint named Berlucchi, Riccio and Barnett as defendants.

Similar to the separate lawsuits from Dr. Gregory Serfer and Dr. Karen Odrzywolski, Dennis' complaint contends that administrators never responded to complaints, including those from other members of the ICU staff, or took corrective action despite repeatedly having been made aware.

An August state Department of Health investigation into the hospital's handling of complaints about Barnett faulted the hospital for failing to properly respond to numerous complaints about Barnett, including reports of "near misses" with patients. The agency followed up in November and determined the hospital had corrected the issues.

Barnett could not be reached for comment on this complaint. He has not returned phone calls in previous attempts to seek his response to lawsuits.

The state Division of Human Rights, the agency with which Dennis' complaint was filed, receives, investigates and attempts to resolve workplace discrimination complaints. It's findings can ultimately be appealed to the state's courts.

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Meet Kristin Garland, Auburn's newest associate city judge

AUBURN — One January evening, tension was in the air as a family of four watched a live-streamed city council meeting. Kristin Garland, the mother of this family had been nominated as Auburn's new part-time associate city judge. Now it was time for council to vote on her confirmation. 

The first vote, a "no," from the five-person council was an unsettling blow. But before the mayor cast the last vote, Garland had secured three votes — a majority. 

Garland's confirmation had lit a fuse, causing her kids to explode as they screamed and jumped up and down. After 226 years as a municipality, Auburn had named its first female city judge. 

Celebrating would have to be put on hold though, as Garland was set to start her new job at 8 a.m. the next morning. Later that week, she would attend a week-long program at the New York State Judicial Institute at Pace University in preparation for the new gig. 

At the Judicial Institute, Garland met fellow newly-appointed judges. The class was a diverse one, comprised of a wide age range. Nearly half of the class was made of women, too. 

"It was really great to go down there and see people that had just been appointed and to see that they too were nervous and anxious," Garland said.

Garland is a courtroom veteran with 11 years of experience. But even for her, it took some time getting accustomed to leading a courtroom.

"When everybody turns and looks at you the first time you sit on the bench, you're kind of like 'Why is everybody looking at me?' And then you realize, 'It's me, I have to call the case.'" 

While at the Judicial Institute Garland learned how to manage different types of cases — including small claims, commercial claims and even dangerous dog hearings. 

Despite what looks like a heavy workload, Garland looks toward the silver lining: another opportunity to learn. 

"Seeing different types of cases let's us get to see more people in the community and help more people in the community," Garland said. "It's given me an opportunity to study and dig into the law again." 

Just like anyone, Garland has faced obstacles throughout her career. But some of these obstacles are unlikely faced by men. Even now as a judge, Garland said that sometimes it's hard to be heard as a woman. 

Early in her career as an attorney, Garland was told by a judge that the shoes she wore were distracting. He told her not to wear them again in the courtroom. Garland said instances like this were common at the time. 

"While it was embarrassing to me, I didn't feel like that was wrong of him to say that to me," Garland said. "Now, cut to 12 years later, I would definitely go to the court administrator and say this judge said this. That's the difference of a decade and a half of change."

For both young men and women, Garland believes today's world can be exciting, as a new generation is exposed to a society overcoming gender bias. As for the young women who continue to encounter bias, "keep going," says Garland. "Keep moving forward, and don't let people tell you that you can't"

Because she's worked with a local firm and has represented a number of clients in the area, Garland isn't allowed to lead a case involving any of her clients from the past two years, according to judicial ethics. Garland also isn't allowed to to take on cases involving her husband, Nate Garland, who serves as an assistant corporation counsel for Auburn. When Nate Garland does appear in housing code cases, Auburn's other judge, Judge David Thurston, takes over. Kristen Garland returns the favor when Thurston's wife, who heads the Auburn Housing Authority appears in court. 

"There's only so many attorneys. There's only so many people in our legal community, and you're going to have conflicts come up, especially when people have worked with firms," Kristen Garland said.  

At the time of Garland's confirmation, Auburn Councilor James Giannettino said the Garlands' relationship was "irrelevant" to the council's decision. "I don't think it's fair to deny someone a job based on their spouse's job," he said. 

For a lack of a better term, Garland hasn't taken on any "blockbuster" cases yet. But if you ask her, she'll say that every case holds importance. 

"You're deciding whether or not if someone is going to spend a part of their life in jail, and that's a big deal," she said. "People don't come to court because they've had something wonderful happen to them — that's just me. Every one that comes to court has a problem of some sort that they're looking to us to decide on."

At the end of her six-year term, Garland said she hopes female judges are more common. In New York, as of February, there are 25 counties that lack female judges, according to New York Law Journal. While Garland is now Auburn's first female judge, Cayuga County still hasn't had a woman on the bench. 

Katko among NY members of Congress to back Cuomo's tax cap push

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's push to make the property tax cap permanent has been endorsed by several New York members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. John Katko. 

Cuomo launched the "No Tax Cap, No Deal" campaign to advocate for a permanent property tax cap. The cap, one of the governor's first legislative achievements in 2011, limits property tax levy growth to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. 

The cap is due to expire next year, but Cuomo wants to make it permanent in the 2019-20 state budget. He has said that he won't sign a budget agreement that doesn't contain a permanent tax cap. 

"We want to reduce economic pressure on families by making sure government is not aggravating the problem with increased expenses," Cuomo said. "We're going to cut your state income tax and we're going to cap your property taxes so you know it's not going higher than 2 percent." 

One reason Cuomo is supporting a permanent property tax cap is the effect of the federal tax law. He has long criticized the federal law, including the provision that caps state and local tax deductions at no more than $10,000. 

He blamed the cap on state and local tax deductions for a $2.3 billion drop in state personal income tax receipts. 

Katko, R-Camillus, was one of four New York Republicans who voted for the federal tax law in late 2017. He has been criticized by Cuomo for that vote. 

But on Wednesday, Katko was the lone GOP member of Congress who issued a statement supporting Cuomo's campaign to make the property tax cap permanent. 

"Year after year, homeowners in central New York pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation," Katko said. "We need to give taxpayers long-term certainty, and making the property tax cap permanent will do just that. High property taxes have burdened economic growth in our state for far too long, and I support these efforts to achieve meaningful tax relief." 

The other members of Congress who endorsed Cuomo's effort include high-ranking Democrats. House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, are among the New Yorkers who support the tax cap proposal. 

The plan to make the property tax cap permanent has met some resistance in the state Legislature. While the state Senate passed legislation to make the cap permanent, state Assembly Democrats are seeking modifications to the cap. 

One of the changes Assembly Democrats want is the elimination of the supermajority requirement to override the cap. Under existing law, 60 percent of a local government board or school district residents must vote to exceed the tax cap. 

However, Cuomo isn't open to changing the tax cap. When asked on Monday if he would consider modifying the cap, he responded, "No." 

Auburn school board mulls options in wake of upcoming budget deficit

AUBURN — With a deficit rapidly approaching, the Auburn Enlarged City School District Board of Education discussed its options to impact that gap.

At its meeting at the Auburn High School library Tuesday night, district Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo told board members he wanted to get a sense of how they wanted to approach that shortfall. Pirozzolo said he wanted to talk to them about how they feel about using reserve funds and acknowledged that some board members wanted to discuss the district's 2.21-percent tax cap given by the state. The district has said for years that it doesn't receive its fair share of state aid.

"Until the state listens to what our needs are and they finally realize, 'Wait, something's not right here,' and they make a fix, but until then it's up to us sitting here at this table," Pirozzolo said.

Board member Salvatore "Sam" Giangreco had doubts about using the reserves.

"Spending the reserves, my feeling is this: We're spending an insurance policy, just like if you have insurance on your house and you got to pay bills and you do something, you're going to dip into that and it's not there when you need it," Giangreco said. 

Board member Ian Phillips brought up the idea of exceeding the cap, which would require than a 60-percent majority vote from the community to pass.

"We all hope the state comes to its senses, but at at some point we have to figure out a solution to this problem," Phillips said. He said the district pays lower taxes than other areas.

"Nobody wants to pay more taxes, I'm a home owner, all of you are taxpayers, but at some point we can't starve our schools because people who have wealth are moving out of the district, so we have to find the solution to this problem," Phillips said. 

Board member Fred Cornelius had reservations about being able to successfully communicate the idea to voters.

"I'd love to think we could sell a 7-percent increase or something like that and have that much more revenue. I just don't know that we're that good a salesmen," Cornelius said. 

Board member Eli Hernandez said if the district proposed to raise taxes to the point that the gap would be resolved to save jobs, that could be used as a selling point to the community. He noted that while he doesn't want to pay higher taxes, he would be willing to if it ensured no job cuts.

"At the end of the day, the community has responded to us in the times that we've gone to them, and if we're saying 'We're going to make a commitment' and we're living in dangerous waters and making investments more for the sake of keeping our programming and continuing the work that we're doing in Auburn, then we're asking our community to support that, and that means this percentage," Hernandez said.

He emphasized the importance of rallying the community to advocate for the district.

Pirozzolo said several times this was just a discussion and no votes were going to happen during the meeting. Pirozzolo said the district appreciates the community's support in various endeavors, including the $43.7 million capital project voters approved in January. He said that wouldn't impact the 2019-20 tax levy, as that 1.98-percent increase doesn't go into effect until the district begins making debt payments on the project, which wouldn't be until the 2020-21 school year.