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Fired Riverhead library business manager: African-American director ordered discrimination against whites

The Riverhead Free Library’s business manager, terminated from her position late last month, has filed a complaint with the N.Y. State Human Rights Division charging the library’s director with race discrimination and accusing the director of firing her for objecting to discriminatory practices.

In a complaint filed last week against the library and its director, Joy Rankin, Diane Woodcheke of Calverton accuses the director of ordering employees “to hire exclusively blacks and Latinos” to the exclusion of other qualified candidates.

According to the complaint, Rankin, who is African-American, soon after she was hired in August 2013, announced to library staff, “My people have been kept down.” Rankin “repeatedly told…employees that it was their duty to make the library ‘look more like Riverhead’” with regard to racial composition, Woodcheke alleges in the complaint.

Woodcheke says other employees came to her to express concerns that Rankin’s practices were illegal and in April 2014 she spoke to her boss about it, informing Rankin that the library is an equal opportunity employer.

That conversation triggered a backlash against Woodcheke, according to the complaint. Rankin “became enraged and verbally berated and abused” Woodcheke, warning her to never bring up the issue again.

Rankin then “engaged in a campaign of repeated, pervasive…hostile acts” against the business manager, mocking her by calling her “Roxanne,” a reference to the rap song of the same name.

The director created and maintained a hostile work environment, Woodcheke says, including making suggestive unsolicited remarks containing sexual references.

Rankin effectively demoted Woodcheke, removing her supervisory duties, restricting her managerial duties, and reassigning her “to menial tasks that were far below [Woodcheke’s] previous job assignments and responsibilities,” the complaint alleges.

“It was the equivalent of being put in a rubber room if you’re a teacher,” Woodcheke’s attorney, Vesselin Mitev, said in an interview today.

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Diane Woodcheke (Undated Facebook photo)

Woodcheke was suspended without pay on Sept. 24 for reasons she claims were “false and pretextual.” The business manager was accused of failing to report a missing bank account password and of failing to inform the director of other financial account passwords she possessed.

Woodcheke retained legal counsel two days later.

Mitev said he immediately wrote to the library trustees, informing them that Woodcheke had retained a law firm and putting them on notice that any further acts of adverse treatment would be construed as further unlawful retaliation against his client.

Less than one month later, on Oct. 28, Woodcheke, 46, a library employee since 2003 and its business manager since 2012, received a termination notice.

Since the termination took place after Woodcheke exercised her protected workplace rights to retain an attorney, it “gives rise to a prima facie inference of unlawful retaliatory conduct by an employer against an employee,” according to the complaint.

Asked if Rankin’s appointment of a white woman as her administrative assistant last month had any bearing on his client’s case, Mitev, who said he was unaware of the appointment, said it did not affect his client’s case.

“The actions speak for themselves,” Mitek said.

Woodcheke is seeking unspecified compensatory damages for lost wages, retirement benefits, emotional distress, mental anguish, humiliation and pain and suffering. She is also seeking punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The suit was first reported by the New York Post Nov. 7.

In response for a request for comment, the board of trustees issued the following statement:

“Former office manager Diane Woodcheke claims that she was wrongfully terminated for reasons related to racial discrimination. Ms. Woodcheke has initiated litigation against the library and therefore it would be imprudent to offer expansive comments to her concerns while this litigation is pending. However, we believe that the allegations are false and without merit and we will vigorously dispute the allegations brought against the library and our library director Joy Rankin, who we fully support.

“The library does not have a practice of discrimination of any kind and we strive to maintain an environment that promotes tolerance, understanding and respect for all.”

Top photo caption: Riverhead Free Library director Joy Rankin (Photo: Peter Blasl)

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.