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August 31, 2021

MCC CEO files federal suit, claims discrimination in state university system

Photo | Manchester Community College Nicole Esposito.

Nicole Esposito, whose position as the chief executive officer of Manchester Community College is in limbo, has filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the Connecticut State College and University system has a systemic pattern of gender discrimination and retaliation from some leaders.

Esposito’s lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for Connecticut, names the CSCU system and several CSCU officials as defendants, arguing they have “discriminated against Nicole Esposito based on sex, and retaliated against her for opposing discrimination and retaliation and speaking out on matters of public concern.”

The lawsuit alleges the CSCU system and some employees have violated Esposito’s rights under Title IX, as well as the First and 14th amendments. Esposito is seeking monetary damages exceeding $75,000 and prospective injunction relief.

CSCU spokesman Leigh Appleby would not comment on pending litigation.

The Board of Regents has the sole power to appoint and remove campus CEOs for the CSCU system, but it was announced last week that Esposito was on leave and Robert Steinmetz was named as her replacement without a vote by the board.

Esposito’s lawsuit says Steinmetz “was personally involved in acts of discrimination and retaliation” against Esposito, as were Alice Pritchard, chief of staff for the CSCU system, and CSCU Vice President of Human Services Andrew Kripp.

Esposito began her role as MCC CEO on July 6, 2020, reporting to Steinmetz, who reported to Pritchard.

The lawsuit details a number of interactions that Esposito says show discrimination. According to the lawsuit:

“Steinmetz began making sexist statements to (Esposito) very early during her tenure as campus CEO,” according to the lawsuit.

Steinmetz repeatedly told Esposito he did not like her “tone of voice” and that he did not like the way she spoke. When Esposito asked for specifics, Steinmetz did not provide any, other than to say that she was “off-putting.”

Early in Esposito’s tenure as CEO, “Steinmetz also made sexist comments about another professional woman,” the lawsuit states. She tried to hire a qualified woman to serve in her MCC administration, but Steinmetz objected and “stated that he did not like her.”

When Esposito again asked for specifics, Steinmetz did not question the applicant’s qualifications or credentials, but “instead, Steinmetz responded with concerns regarding how much the female applicant talked during her interview.”

Esposito said she would hire the woman regardless because she thought she was the best candidate.

In July 2020, Esposito told Steinmetz directly that she felt his comments were sexist.

Steinmetz responded by threatening Esposito’s job security and stated, “you are only a week in and already acting like this. We will see if you work out here,” the lawsuit says.

Concerns not addressed

Later that month, Esposito expressed her concerns to Pritchard about Steinmetz, including that he was treating her differently than male campus CEOs and that he threatened her job, and criticized her tone, and objected to the hiring of the female candidate because she talked too much during her interview.

She said she told Pritchard: “I would continue to remain professional and am happy to accept direction. However, I am beginning to believe that is not what is happening here. I am told that this is not happening to Steven Minkler or Duncan Harris” — two male campus CEOs who report directly to Steinmetz.

The communications were in advance of an expected phone discussion, but “Pritchard failed to address the serious concern” that Esposito raised, according to the lawsuit, which alleges Pritchard didn’t conduct an investigation or notify the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, nor did she speak with Esposito on the phone.

Instead, Pritchard sent Esposito an email, “which essentially advised (Esposito) to go back and work things out with Steinmetz,” the lawsuit says, but she was met with “deliberate indifference” by one of CSCU’s senior leaders and Steinmetz’s supervisor.

Steinmetz continued to act in a way that “belittled and demeaned” Esposito, and refused to acknowledge her positive job performance, the lawsuit says.

MCC finished the year with a $2 million budget surplus despite the pandemic, and the school was recognized as the top community college in the state.

Steinmetz never acknowledged those accomplishments nor did he provide Esposito with a performance evaluation, according to the lawsuit.

After speaking with colleagues over a period of time, Esposito “became aware that Steinmetz also treated other women who reported to him badly, and that he treated the men who reported to him more favorably,” including discriminating against other women, tolerating discriminatory acts by others, and retaliating against people who opposed the alleged discrimination.

No warning of contract non-renewal

On June 16, Steinmetz sent Esposito an email, copied to the CSCU General Counsel Ernestine Weaver, requiring Esposito to appear for a meeting the next afternoon.

Esposito asked questions about the meeting so she could be prepared, but “Steinmetz disregarded,” according to the lawsuit.

The next morning, June 17, Weaver informed Esposito that she didn’t need to prepare for the meeting because she would not be required to speak, but only listen to Steinmetz and Weaver.

Before the start of the meeting, Esposito told Diane Mazza in human resources and David Levinson, interim president of the Connecticut Community College, about her concerns of a pattern of discrimination by Steinmetz.

According to the lawsuit, Levinson agreed that Steinmetz should not be treating women that way and confirmed that Esposito “was not the first person who expressed concerns to him about Steinmetz’s treatment of women, but Levinson deflected responsibility” because Steinmetz reported to Pritchard.

Steinmetz and Weaver met with Esposito that afternoon and told her that Steinmetz would be moving to non-continue her appointment as MCC CEO but didn’t provide a reason, the lawsuit says. Weaver and Steinmetz didn’t identify any problems with her performance during the meeting, the lawsuit states.

Instead, they “attempted to pressure” her into resigning and signing a stipulated agreement proposed by CSCU that included her release, a waiver of claims, and an agreement to not make any public or private disparaging remarks. Pritchard signed off on the agreement.

Weaver implied that if Esposito didn’t sign the agreement, “things would become public and that would not be good” for her, and that the Board of Regents was already on board with the decision to not renew her appointment, the lawsuit says.

She was told that she needed to make a decision by 3 p.m. June 23, because the Board of Regents would meet the following day to vote on her employment.

Regents table vote

Esposito’s lawyers intervened on June 23 and the Board of Regents tabled the agenda item related to her employment, but she continued to be the target of discrimination and retaliation, she says in the lawsuit.

Her legal counsel met with the law firm hired by CSCU and provided details and documents supporting her claims, as well as numerous other examples showing a pattern of discrimination and retaliation at CSCU against other women.

On Aug. 18, Kripp presented Esposito with another proposed stipulated agreement, giving her a deadline of noon Aug. 24 to sign or the Board of Regents would convene to consider the non-renewal of her appointment.

The lawsuit argues the law firm hired by CSCU to conduct an investigation was not independent and that the firm represents CSCU on labor and employment matters, and works closely with Kripp on union negotiations.

Esposito notified Kripp that her lawyers would be contacting Attorney General William Tong’s office.

Shortly after noon on Aug. 24, Kripp called Esposito and told her that he was placing her on leave effective immediately and that she was no longer the CEO of MCC, and was prohibited from communicating with any member of the CSCU community, including employees, faculty, staff, and students. Kripp also told her to remove her belongings from campus, and her access to her CSCU email account was discontinued, according to the lawsuit.

No explanation was given. Her suspension was “without cause and in violation of CSCU policies and procedures,” the lawsuit states.

The same day, Esposito’s lawyers sent communications to Tong’s office objecting to the action and demanding that she be immediately reinstated to her position as MCC CEO.

On Aug. 25, Terrence Cheng, president of CSCU, sent a message to the MCC community, saying that Esposito “is out of the office at this time” and Steinmetz would assume CEO responsibilities.

Lawsuit cites other examples

The lawsuit accuses Steinmetz of several other examples of siding with men over women who claimed to be treated differently because of their gender.

In January, Steinmetz and another CSCU official called an interim campus CEO and directed them not to hire a female candidate for a financial aid director position, and told the campus CEO to issue “a false and pretextual explanation for the decision,” according to the lawsuit.

Steinmetz, according to the lawsuit, also discriminated against a former female interim campus CEO, threatened the employment of other women who have stood up to him, showed a tolerance for discrimination against woman and others when a male presenter made “offensive racist and sexist comments” during a presentation regarding workplace civility at a Connecticut community college in 2019.

“Other women in addition to (Esposito) have complained about sexism and/or retaliation at CSCU, but CSCU has failed to take appropriate action,” the lawsuit says.

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