SUNY Alfred State College facing lawsuit for discrimination and retaliation

Lawsuit comes in addition to human rights claims
Posted at 3:00 PM, Jan 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-13 19:12:23-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The 7 News I-Team has discovered Alfred State College is now facing a lawsuit, filed in state supreme court by a former instructor. She claims she was discriminated and retaliated against by school administrators. She also claims she was forced out, placing blame on one administrator who is already named in other claims.

This former professor is looking for hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.

"I bleed blue and gold. I believe in Alfred State College," said Karen Young. She's a former professor of drafting at the college.

Young filed that lawsuit against Alfred State, in state supreme court in Cattaraugus County.

She claims she was retaliated against by school administrators, including Dr. Kristin Poppo — the former provost — for filing a 2018 claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (also known as the EEOC). Young claims she was discriminated against because she's a woman.

"When it came down to opportunity — for moving to the interim dean, having the chair level removed — all those went to the male counterparts that didn't nearly have the experience that I did," Young told the I-Team.

In this lawsuit, Young says she was "demoted from Design Manufacturing Chair, a position she held since 2006 and replaced by another male employee with less than one year experience."

The lawsuit continues, "within days of the conclusion of her EEOC matter Young was notified that she would be terminated from her position advised she would be terminated from the college..."

The I-Team asked Young if she ever thought this was retaliation for filing that EEOC claim. "I knew it was," Young said.

Karen Young

The I-Team also asked Young, who in particular was responsible for creating this atmosphere, leading her to file this lawsuit? "100% Kristin Poppo," Young said. "She oversaw all academics all programs." We asked if Young blamed Poppo directly. She simply said, "yes."

"The decision for deactivating Drafting/CAD came fifteen months prior to her filing with the EEOC," said Alfred State College Officer-In-Charge Dr. John Anderson.

"It's a blatant case of retaliation and it's clear that it was done -- the timing -- because she filed this charge," said Kevin Wicka, Young's attorney.

Together, they are suing Alfred State College for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"She had to file the lawsuit because they were unwilling to compensate her for what is a huge economic loss, cutting her way short and she'd been unable to find other work since that time," Wicka said.

Kevin Wicka

Young said administrators forced her into retirement or else she would lose her healthcare, when her program was retrenched-- effectively cut-- in April, 2020.

In a statement to the I-Team, Anderson said:

"Her program struggled for many years with low enrollment and often with a single-digit number of students per faculty."

That's something Wicka says isn't true.

"Economically, the cost of what her program generated versus other programs — it made no sense economically — because she had over 140 students. There were programs they kept with expensive equipment where they had less than ten," Wicka said.

Alfred said:

"The positions for both one male and one female employee were part of a retrenchment."

But Young said she was assured she wouldn't lose her job and points to an email from a school administrator, saying "there is not a retrenchment." That was sent in 2017, before the EEOC claim was filed.

Her attorney calls all of this a vindictive punishment for filing that EEOC charge, saying her "forced retirement was a constructive discharge
which is legally akin to a termination."

"If she had not filed that EEOC charge, we fully believe she would have still remained at the school," Wicka said. "When you have no other choice but to leave a position -- and they put her in a untenable position -- of either allow yourself to be terminated therefore losing healthcare for the rest of your life or you can retire...they held her at a proverbial gun point."

Wicka says, he plans on calling Poppo — the former provost — to testify in this case. He also plans on calling Irby "Skip" Sullivan, the former president.

Poppo was named in at least two other cases, filed by both current and former staffers, with the State Division of Human Rights.

In one case filed by Peter von Stackelberg, Poppo was accused of saying it was "time to get rid of the old white guys," which he felt was discriminatory after he wound up losing his job.

Dr. Kristin Poppo

Young says she needed to speak up. "It was important for me to share my story because there are others and we don't really know for sure how many," she said.

The state Attorney General's office, acting on Alfred's behalf, denies or can neither confirm nor deny each of the claims in Karen Young's lawsuit.

Regarding the allegation of the former provost using the phrase "time to get rid of the old white guys," Anderson explains,

"...multiple witnesses who were present in the same meeting have testified under oath that this quote is false and didn't happen"...

There was other testimony, also under oath, to the contrary.

The I-Team has reached out directly to Kristin Poppo by email. She did not answer questions and instead referred us to a college spokesman.

The I-Team has also learned, another case filed with the state Division of Human Rights has received probable cause. That case claims discrimination based on sexual orientation. It is now pending against Alfred State College.

In November, Governor Kathy Hochul's office released a statement in response to our investigation, explaining:

Governor Hochul has been very clear: there can be zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination, and we support SUNY's efforts to investigate every complaint thoroughly.