UNION, NJ – An explosive lawsuit, naming the Union High School principal and members of the administration as defendants, was filed late last week on behalf of Union’s Director of Athletics alleging harassment and discrimination.
Township of Union Schools Athletic Director Linda Ionta, a Union school district employee for 29 years, filed suit last week against Union High School Principal Corey Lowery, Superintendent Gregory Tatum, and Assistant Superintendents Gerald Benaquista and Annie Moses. Lowery has been on an unspecified administrative leave since Sept. 13.
The suit alleges that Lowery engaged “in a severe and pervasive pattern of conduct designed to usurp and undermine Ms. Ionta in her position as Athletic Director” and that no remedial action from the administration occurred.
Among other charges, the suit outlines multiple occasions when Lowery insisted that Ionta involve him in hiring and/or employment decisions relating to the coaching staff. According to the suit, hiring decisions “were exclusively the responsibility of Ms. Ionta and Lowery has no authority or responsibility to participate in such decisions.”
The suit goes on to allege that Lowery directed Ionta to make employment decisions based upon the race of the individual. Ionta’s suit says on numerous occasions since 2015, Lowery told Ionta to terminate football coach Lou Grasso and basketball coach Kevin Feeley.
According to the lawsuit, Lowery told Ionta that the white male coaches were “unable to reach our kids because our kids cannot see themselves in them." Ionta refused to follow Lowery’s directive and on multiple occasions reported it to Benaquista, “because in my heart I know that [the white male coaches] are great coaches and because it’s wrong to want to fire coaches because of the color of their skin.”
Regarding another hiring decision, according to the suit, Ionta recommended a candidate who was white, female and a lesbian because “she was the most qualified for the position.” Lowery told Ionta her decision would be disregarded because her candidate “doesn’t look like a head coach”, referring to among other things, the applicant’s weight. The suit alleges that Ionta reported this to Tatum, who told her to “work it out” with Lowery, even though Lowery has no role or responsibility in the hiring decision.
The lawsuit continues that in April 2017, Lowery, “who has no supervisory authority over Ionta”, prepared a written disciplinary action document relating to Ionta’s handling of senior student athletes. The suit alleges that Tatum said Lowery should not have prepared the document because he, Tatum, is Ionta’s direct supervisor, not Lowery. Tatum assured Ionta that he would address the matter with Lowery.
Two days later, according to the suit, Lowery told Ionta he was going to terminate the employment of Feeley. In that meeting, Lowery said “Grasso is next, he is lucky to get one more year.”
The lawsuit says Ionta meet with Moses and Tatum soon afterward and Tatum assured Ionta that he would be meeting with Lowery to “clear everything up”. He confirmed that the responsibility to hire coaches resided exclusively with the Athletic Director.
Three days later, according to the suit, Lowery sent Ionta an email, with a copy to Tatum, stating, among other things, “no coach is to be hired or re-hired without discussion and consent with me first…” (emphasis added). The suit alleges Lowery told Ionta in a meeting that day that he planned to fire Grasso and Feeley and said “one by one I will get rid of every one of your coaches that I feel cannot contend at a State championship level.”
The lawsuit contends that Lowery engaged in an unrelenting course of harassment, intimidation and conduct usurping and undermining Ionta’s authority, frequently for the unlawful purpose of attempting to make employment decisions on the impermissible basis of an individual’s race.
Ionta’s suit says that Tatum, Benaquista and Moses have not taken any remedial measure(s) against Lowery for his conduct. “Lowery has not been disciplined, suspended, or terminated, despite Ionta’s frequent complaints to Tatum, Benaquista and Moses.”
The suit outlines that in July 2017, Ionta provided Benaquista a five page “Affirmative Action Complaint” detailing “Lowery’s harassing, intimidating, and discriminatory conduct toward her." The suit alleges that the district was required to provide Ionta with a response to the Affirmative Action Complaint within (30) thirty days. “To date, Ms. Ionta has never received a response.”
The suit continues that in March 2018, Ionta made a written complaint to Benaquista “formally advising the administration that she continues to be a victim of workplace harassment, intimidation and bullying” and that the “district’s failure to follow-up on their internal investigation and render a final decision remains deeply troubling to me as an administrative staff member.”
The suit also alleges that in July 2018 Ionta requested a copy of an investigative report conducted by an outside investigator. According to the lawsuit, the report was provided to the defendants in June 2018, but Ionta was not provided with a copy.
The suit lists eight counts:
- Harassment based upon race in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
- Harassment based upon gender in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
- Retaliation in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
- New Jersey law against discrimination liability based upon delegation of authority
- Aiding and abetting by defendant Lowery in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
- Aiding and abetting by defendant Tatum in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
- Aiding and abetting by defendant Benaquista in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
- Aiding and abetting by defendant Moses in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
Ionta had no comment when reached by TAPinto Union. A request for comment from Tatum went unanswered.