Fishers Island ferryman alleges age discrimination

Longtime Fishers Island Ferry employee Thomas Doherty was five months away from retirement.

On Sept. 6, 2011, Mr. Doherty, then 61, told the Ferry District Board that he planned to retire in March 2012, which would allow him to reach the 10 years of employment needed to collect lifetime health insurance benefits.

According to court papers, the board instead offered Mr. Doherty an “early retirement” package that would have granted him the health insurance, but wouldn’t have allowed him to sell back accrued sick time. Mr. Doherty rejected the proposal.

Weeks later, claims a federal lawsuit Mr. Doherty has filed against the ferry district, commissioners and Southold Town, he was abruptly fired during a special meeting of the board.

Mr. Doherty now says he was discriminated against and fired improperly due to his age.

“He had pretty much given notice, advance notice,” said his attorney, Matt Weinick of Melville. “They terminated him to avoid paying his retirement benefits.”

The district had told Mr. Doherty that he was fired for performance issues, according to court papers.

In the lawsuit, filed June 13, Mr. Doherty claims that the three commissioners who voted for his ouster — Robert Brooks, Christopher Edwards and Christopher Rafferty — the ferry district itself and the Town of Southold are all responsible for the alleged discrimination.

Mr. Doherty had filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December 2011.

Last August, the EEOC found “reasonable cause to believe that violations of the statute occurred,” though it could not reach a settlement with the ferry district.

“We’re going to be asking for a large emotional damage award,” Mr. Weinick said.

Defense attorney Richard Zuckerman, who is representing the defendants, said the lawsuit’s claims don’t detail more than a year of performance issues involving Mr. Doherty.

“It’s always easy for a lawyer to make up the facts to try to sell a story that has no basis in reality,” Mr. Zuckerman said. “Assuming that he tells the truth when he’s under oath, Mr. Doherty will tell a different story that includes the fact that there were numerous complaints about his work performance well before he announced that he wanted to leave the ferry district.”

Mr. Zuckerman also said the EEOC’s determination only addresses “questions of fact” and is not proof that discrimination occurred.

The suit names the town as a defendant because the Town Board voted to approve Mr. Doherty’s termination. Yet town attorney Martin Finnegan said he believed the town would be dismissed from the case because it is required by law to sign off on any personnel resolutions involving the ferry district.

“The allegations in the complaint are primarily against the Fishers Island Ferry District, by whom Mr. Doherty was employed,” Mr. Finnegan said. “There is no allegation that the Town Board had any direct involvement in any decision or action to terminate the plaintiff.”

Mr. Doherty began working for the ferry district as a manager in March 2002, according to the lawsuit. Court papers claim he was responsible for “significant improvements” to the district, such as a web page and securing “more than $2 million in grants.”

The lawsuit claims that Mr. Doherty gave advance notice intention to retire as a “courtesy” to allow the ferry district time to hire a new manager.

In addition to rescinding his ability to sell back sick time, the suit claims, the retirement package offered to Mr. Doherty was also illegal because it didn’t advise him to seek an attorney, give him 21 days to review the agreement or, if he accepted the deal, allow him seven days to change his mind.

The decision to fire Mr. Doherty was made during a special meeting of the Ferry District Board held Oct. 7, 2011.

The board went into executive session and after returning, fired Mr. Doherty, the suit claims. One board member was absent, while another abstained for “personal reasons,” Mr. Weinick said. Because he was fired five months before his retirement — preventing him fro achieving 10 years of employment — Mr. Doherty was denied his retirement benefits.

Mr. Weinick said that while he’s handled age discrimination cases before, they are normally filed against private companies.

“It’s kind of a unique situation, because it’s a town,” he said. The suit claims that Mr. Doherty’s 14th Amendment civil rights as well as rights under the Older Worker’s Benefits Protection Act were violated.

He is seeking reinstatement, payment of his legal fees and an award of damages for emotional distress, lost pay, loss of benefits and “any other damages permitted by law.”

Mr. Doherty’s attorneys have demanded a jury trial.

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