Not kosher: PS 312 sued by Orthodox employee for religious discrimination

Not kosher: PS 312 sued by Orthodox employee for religious discrimination
Photo by Steve Solomonson

An employee at PS 312 in Bergen Beach is suing the city and her school’s principal, alleging a litany of discriminatory actions targeting her Orthodox Jewish beliefs.

Ilene Klass, an occupational therapist at the school, says that since showing up late one spring day following a Jewish holiday, she has been mistreated by the school in apparent retaliation over her religious commitments.

“She was subjected to continuous bullying, harassment, religious discrimination, and retaliation from her employers or their agents due to the fact that she is an Orthodox Jew,” argues her lawyer, Joseph Aron, in the lawsuit filed on Dec. 23 last year.

Klass has worked at PS 312 as an occupational therapist for around 10 years, and is still at the school, where she is the only Orthodox Jewish employee. She had an exemplary record until the conflict arose with principal Sungmin Yoo last year, according to the lawsuit.

Both Yoo and the city’s Department of Education declined to comment for this article.

The problems for Klass began in February 2017, when she asked Yoo for the day off on April 19, which was the day after the Jewish holiday of Passover. There were no classes the previous day due to the school’s spring break. Klass asked for the day off because she was returning from Florida where her ailing father lives, and Orthodox tradition forbids flying on the last day of Passover, which was April 18. Yoo declined her request, according to the lawsuit, and when Klass said the earliest she could arrive would be two hours late on April 19, Yoo allegedly responded “better to come late than not to come at all,” and Klass told Yoo she would be late, the lawsuit states.

However, Yoo then wrote up Klass for “professional misconduct and insubordination, due to the lateness,” according to the suit. Klass argues that she was singled out for being an Orthodox Jew, since other employees were allegedly allowed the day off.

“Ms. Yoo allowed other employees to take off on April 19. 2017. Those employees were not Orthodox Jews,” she alleges in the suit.

The suit contends that the lateness penalty demonstrated religious discrimination, because other employees who were late did not receive the same punishment. Yoo allegedly said that she opposed granting the day off because the city frowns upon employees not working the days before and after holidays, but Klass believes she was singled out over this, according to her lawsuit.

“This standard apparently only applies to Orthodox Jews, as others in the same school were granted the day off,” she argues in court filings.

Klass alleges a series of other discriminatory measures then followed. Around May of 2017, Yoo changed Klass’s Friday hours to 3:25 pm. Klass could not work until then in the winter due to time’s proximity to sundown, when the Jewish Sabbath begins.

“This schedule was specifically made for Plaintiff in order to frustrate her Shabbos observance,” the lawsuit alleges, adding that Yoo threatened her with civil and criminal penalties for not complying with the new hours.

Other allegations against the school and Yoo include stopping e-mail confirmations of requests for religious absences, putting a letter in Klass’s personnel file alleging misconduct, not allowing Klass to use personal time for religious observance as she had in the past, and scolding her for missing nine days in 2017, many of which were Jewish holidays, according to the suit.

The lawsuit specifies that Klass is suing over defamation regarding the misconduct charge, harassment at the workplace, religious discrimination, and other grievances.

Klass and Aron declined to comment beyond the contents of the lawsuit.

New York State law offers some protections to employees regarding religious holidays, including allowing them to observe holy days unless doing so would create “undue hardship,” according to the state attorney general’s website.

Reach reporter Adam Lucente at alucente@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_Lucente.