A former lacrosse player at Hofstra University is suing an ambulance service on Long Island, New York, claiming he was fired as an EMT in 2011 for being gay. The company disputes this and said the firing was justified and not related to sexual orientation.
Jordan Lester, who played club lacrosse at Hofstra until graduating in 2010, is suing Emergency Ambulance Service of Bohemia, N.Y., for wrongful termination, defamation and slander relating to his firing in August 2011. The suit, filed in Nassau County with the New York State Supreme Court in August 2012, is in the discovery phase, where evidence is being sought. As of now, Lester is acting as his own attorney.
Lester reported to work on Aug. 26, 2011, for his job as an emergency medical technician with EAS and received a termination letter. The reason for his firing as outlined in the letter written by Kelly Linden, EAS Director of Human Resources, reads:
“Having spoken with you in the past regarding your discussions with fellow employees about your sexual experiences and preferences, it has once again been brought to our attention. It has made several employees uncomfortable and cannot be tolerated.”
After being fired, Lester filed a claim against EAS with the New York State Division of Human Rights. His claim was dismissed and the lawsuit is an appeal of that decision. He is seeking monetary damages. In a separate matter involving unemployment benefits, a judge sided with Lester and said there was no evidence of misconduct by him.
Lester says that months before being fired, he “made complaints about workplace harassment” to Linden. Lester told Outsports that he was out to some co-workers and they reported that other co-workers used gay slurs such as “fag” when referring to him. He took these complaints to Linden, who he said ignored them.
Instead, the suit says, the company “instructed various employees/co-workers of [Lester] to make untrue written and verbal statements about [his] sexual orientation and work performance.” It was then that Lester received his termination notice.
In a letter Linden sent Sept. 30, 2011, to David M. Fish, Lester's attorney at the time, the hiring manager wrote that “Mr. Lester was given a verbal warning back in June for reasons of inappropriate behavior and work performance. In this meeting, it was explained to Mr. Lester that while having a partner at work and riding on an ambulance with them, it is not appropriate to speak about your sexual preferences or to have any physical contact with an employee. … Mr. Lester would make employees feel uncomfortable while speaking of his sexual preference, sexual acts with his boyfriend, drug behavior and inappropriate contact with employees.”
Lester says that Linden's claims are false, and came in retaliation for him speaking out about harassment he received from co-workers. “I categorically deny all their allegations,” he said. The defamation part of the lawsuit stems from what Lester says are these false allegations, which he says were not raised until he filed his complaint with the Division of Human Rights. He said he never spoke to co-workers about sexual acts, does not do drugs and never inappropriately touched another co-worker. He focused on the part of his termination letter that said his “sexual preference” made co-workers uncomfortable.
"I think it's outrageous that they would fire someone because they say they are gay,” Lester told Outsports. “It's protected speech under the First Amendment. If they don't like it, it's not my problem, it's their problem. There is no Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Even the military got rid of that."
New York state prohibits firing someone based on their sexual orientation and this was the basis for Lester's claim in December 2011 with the New York State Division of Human Rights. The division rejected Lester's claim, writing that “the investigation revealed [Lester] was terminated after a complaint about his inappropriate conversations in the workplace.” Lester said he was shocked by the decision because he had no chance to rebut two witnesses that spoke against him.
“The New York State Division of Human Rights never gave me a hearing even though I requested one, nor did they even call me on the phone to hear my side,” Lester said. “Witnesses they called were two EMT's that had no knowledge of supervisory affairs. They didn't know about the complaints I filed. They never spoke to supervisors that knew about the harassment and they did not call my witnesses.” He called the decision “arbitrary and capricious.”
Linden, the EAS human resources head, cited the decision in an e-mail to Outsports when asked for reaction to the lawsuit.
“Mr. Lester’s claim was thoroughly investigated by the New York State Division of Human Rights and they found that the evidence did not support Mr. Lester’s claims,” Linder wrote in the email. “They further found that there was no evidence that Mr. Lester worked in a sexually hostile work environment and it was determined that Mr. Lester was terminated for legitimate non-discriminatory reasons. Mr. Lester’s Human Rights complaint was in fact dismissed. This determination was also adopted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Mr. Lester’s subsequent civil suit is being vigorously defended and we anticipate that it will be dismissed based upon the prior determination of the New York State Division of Human Rights. Unfortunately, I cannot comment any further due to the pending litigation.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did not investigate the case, but instead relied on the New York decision, while at the same time informing Lester of his right to appeal by filing suit.
Lester fared better in his fight for unemployment benefits. At first, the New York Department of Labor denied Lester benefits, saying his firing was the result of misconduct. But he won the benefits on appeal after a judge ruled he was fired for complaining about harassment based on his sexual orientation.
In her opinion, Administrative Law Judge Carol A. Procopio wrote that “the evidence presented shows that [Lester] was fired from his job almost two months after he complained to the employer about harassment based on his sexual orientation. The reason given to [Lester] was that he was being fired because his colleagues felt uncomfortable. [Lester] had merely disclosed his orientation to his colleagues. He did not discuss his sexual experiences with colleagues. [Lester's] actions under these circumstances did not rise to the level of misconduct under the law.”
With the suit still in the pre-trial stages, Lester faces a dilemma of not having money to hire an attorney. He paid Fish to handle his case with the Division of Human Rights and for his unemployment benefits, but can't afford him for the suit. He has consulted numerous attorneys and is looking for someone to take the case on a contingency fee basis. However, he can't afford the down payment and all attorneys he has consulted want a fee up front. He is working two jobs and paying off student loans, so right now is filing the necessary paperwork to keep the suit going with some help from a friend who is a lawyer. He says he was wronged and will fight the case until all options are exhausted.
"They made up allegations in retaliation" for filing the human rights complaint, said Lester, who is continuing his lacrosse career in a competitive league this summer, with hopes of playing in the American Lacrosse League next year. "I have to clear my name because there are allegations that have come out that aren't true."
Jordan Lester can be reached via email at [email protected].