‘Abusive Work Surroundings:’ Queens Public Defenders Face ADA Swimsuit

KEW GARDENS, QUEENS – Dana Longstreet struggled with depression, thyroid problems and a concussion when she asked her then-employer Queens Defenders if she could work from home two or three days a week in December 2019.

Two weeks later, Longstreet’s motion, protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and recommended by her psychiatrist, was denied – resulting in months of discriminatory and retaliatory behavior by the Queens Defenders for her disability, according to a new lawsuit.

After asking to work from home, Longstreet said in the lawsuit that she was banned from weekly executive meetings, banned from calling about her work, and ignored in group settings. Lori Zeno, co-founder and managing director of Queens Defenders, did not speak to her directly for over two months, the complaint said.

“I understood this behavior in order to reflect [Zeno’s] Feelings of hostility towards me for applying for adequate accommodation, “Longstreet said in the lawsuit.

However, long before she asked about a disabled shelter, Longstreet saw that Zeno had behaved in ways that she thought it inappropriate for the workplace, records show.

“Abusive Work Environment”

A few months after her job at Queens Defenders Longstreet, concerns began to emerge about the Defense Group’s “abusive work environment” – primarily including Zeno’s behavior in the workplace.

The group’s executive cursed and insulted employees and customers, made derogatory remarks about rape victims and people with Down syndrome, and said she would sue a lawyer who left Queens Defender while on maternity leave, the lawsuit said.

“” They’re fucking idiots. I always call people fucking idiots, “Zeno said in a sexual harassment training session, the complaint read.

Retaliatory behavior

After Zeno turned down Longstreet’s request to work part-time from home – and instead suggested caring for himself or moving from New Jersey to Queens – Zeno began to seek revenge against Longstreet, according to the lawsuit.

Amid the pandemic, she repeatedly suggested to senior executives that Longstreet was not working enough, hiring people to take parts of Longstreet’s job without telling her, and not sending her any promised bonuses or raise, the complaint said.

On Saturday, May 9th, while New York was under a protection order, Zeno urged all Queens Defender employees to attend a face-to-face meeting the following Monday. Longstreet left because she was “afraid of losing” [her] Job, “but said that Zeno was not wearing a mask and hugged everyone. The following week, Longstreet was diagnosed with pneumonia, according to the lawsuit.

In early June, Longstreet was temporarily disabled under the Family and Sick Leave Act due to persistent symptoms from COVID-19, which she likely contracted in April.

EEOC indictment and resignation

While on vacation, Longstreet filed a discrimination charge with the Employment Equality Commission in July. She started working remotely in August and faced further retaliation following the indictment, the lawsuit said.

On September 3, Zeno Longstreet announced that she would be expected back at the office on September 8. The next day, Longstreet received a letter from her doctor asking if she could continue working from home because of her medical conditions – including Hashimoto’s disease, high blood pressure, dizziness, chest pain, brain fog and more, records show.

“My doctor advised me that commuting could endanger my health. Please let me know if Queens Defenders continues to refuse to accommodate my disabilities,” Longstreet wrote in an email sent to Zeno after the executive director of the group had turned down her job request from home.

According to the lawsuit, Zeno replied, “I will not respond to your allegation! Instead, I will pass this on to my labor attorney. Perhaps you should do the same.”

Zeno gave Longstreet a temporary unpaid leave of absence on September 8 – after she did not appear in person at the office but worked at home for a full day, records show.

On September 29, nine days after Longstreet sent Zeno another message from her doctor asking for home accommodation – which received no response – the Queens Defenders agent came back on the line, this time saying that the administrative vacation was “a financial hardship” and left her “no choice but to terminate my employment with Queens Defenders with immediate effect,” the lawsuit said.

Queens Defenders did not immediately respond to Patch’s request for comment on Longstreet’s suit.

Ongoing allegations in the workplace against Queens Defenders

This is not the first time Zeno has been in the spotlight with allegations of workplace misconduct.

In January 2021, Zeno reportedly gave a hate speech of more than two hours urging Queens Defenders workers not to unionise – a plan that 90 percent of the skilled workforce agreed to in December 2020. Zeno said the union was a “mob-like” group and accused members of using “threats”, “coercion” and “manipulation” in their organizing efforts, The City reported.

The following month, two outspoken union supporters were fired from their positions at Queens Defenders in what they reportedly termed “retaliatory firing”.

In a statement from Queens Defenders management to QNS, they said the terminations were “entirely reasonable for a compelling reason and given the behavior of the employees involved.”

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