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October 05. 2011 11:38PM

Ex-manager files suit against Easter Seals

CONCORD — The former manager of a disabled treatment center has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, Easter Seals of New Hampshire.

In the suit, Jeffrey Joseph alleges that he was terminated in part because he complained when his supervisor at the center he worked for in Hollis told him and other staff members to not walk minority patients in the neighborhood due to resident complaints.

Joseph, who is black and lives in Goffstown, was hired by Easter Seals in 2008 and was asked to become the house manager at the new treatment center in Hollis for women with severe psychological disorders. The center has since closed.

According to the lawsuit, Joseph’s supervisor told him and other staff members at an emergency meeting in March 2008 that “the neighbors suspected that Hollis House was operating as a crack house or a chop shop, or that it had a potential link to terrorism.”

The suit alleges that the complaints were related to Joseph, who wears dreadlocks, another black employee, Kathleen Flax, and Melody Bjorkman, a white woman who wore a Muslim veil.

Flax, Bjorkman and another minority staff member, Aimee Gakwaya, are also party to the suit. They live in Manchester.

The complaint further alleges that staff were directed to take non-white residents of the house to parks in Nashua, rather than in the neighborhood.

In response to the staff members’ complaints that the organization was tolerating discrimination, Joseph’s supervisor told him and others “to play nice in the sandbox.”

In a response to the lawsuit, the lawyer for Easter Seals of New Hampshire denied most of the claims against the organization, without elaborating. The organization’s lawyer stated in a court document that the supervisor did use the expression “play nice in the sandbox,” but denied that the comments were “racially motivated.”

In an email response, Easter Seals’ lawyer, David W. McGrath said: “Easter Seals won’t comment specifically about pending litigation, but denies the allegations and most definitely will defend the case vigorously.”

Joseph was fired in April 2008, a month after the staff meeting and three days before Easter Seals was to discuss concerns about the center with Hollis officials, according to Joseph’s complaint.

Easter Seals does not specify the cause for Joseph’s termination, but denies the allegation that it was for “pretextual reasons.”

Joseph had first filed a discrimination complaint in July 2008 with the New Hampshire Commission for Civil Rights. The agency found that Joseph had probable cause to pursue legal action.

Michael T. Pearson, Joseph’s attorney, said the discrimination Easter Seals showed toward his client went beyond the organization’s willingness to go along with the “racially tinged” concerns of neighbors.

“We believe he was fired because of his race and that he was retaliated against when he complained about discriminatory policies,” he said.

The case could go to trial in the spring.


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