A former employee of the city of Northfield has accused the city of forcing her out because she is a woman and because she was suffering health problems that the city deemed too expensive.
But the city categorically denied the claims in documents filed this week.
Charlene Coulombe-Fiore, 51, resigned as Northfield's economic development manager on May 6 of last year, she claims, after being asked to step down. She had been in the job less than a year and says in a federal suit that she was forced out by her supervisor, Joel Walinski, because three men in the city's administration did not want a woman in the role, because she refused to terminate an employee with high health care expenses, and because of Coulombe-Fiore's own health issues.
Walinski has since been promoted to the position of city administrator.
The city's response, filed in federal District Court, denied all the charges, claiming Coulombe-Fiore was given the opportunity to resign in lieu of termination at the end of her probationary employment.
Coulombe-Fiore is seeking damages for lost wages and benefits, punitive damages, reinstatement and a penalty payable to the state provided in the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Her attorney, Rockford Chrastil, said records of Coulombe-Fiore's job reviews will show she was doing her job well.
The suit is the latest in a series of problems to surface in the college town of about 18,000, where former Mayor Lee Lansing last year was charged with misconduct over accusations that he tried to influence the city to move a municipal liquor store to property owned by his son. Lansing lost his reelection bid last year, and former City Administrator Al Roder had earlier resigned amid the strife.
In 2007, then-Police Chief Gary Smith surprised Roder and other leaders with a news conference at which police said hundreds of young people in town could be on heroin or another dangerous drug.
A date of a jury trial in Coulombe-Fiore's case has not been announced.
Coulombe-Fiore filed a complaint with the state's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on Feb. 29. The EEOC issued a Notice of Right to Sue on June 9.
After she was hired, three members of Northfield's Economic Development Authority expressed opposition to Roder about having a woman as economic development manager, according to Coulombe-Fiore.
Coulombe-Fiore also alleges that Northfield's human resources director told her to fire an employee whose daughter had health issues before the employee's one-year anniversary of employment. When she refused, the HR director supposedly said Coulombe-Fiore "would suffer the consequences."
Coulombe-Fiore developed her own health problems and was diagnosed in the spring of 2008 with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition.
According to Coulombe-Fiore, she was called into her supervisor's office on May 5 and told to resign. The reason given, she said, was that "she didn't fit in.''
Coulombe-Fiore resigned the next day, saying she did not want to have a firing on her record.
Coulombe-Fiore claims that the human resources director for the city later told Lansing and several City Council members that Coulombe-Fiore was leaving because she had a medical issue and was an insurance risk.
Chrastil said he is confident he has the evidence to show that Northfield officials have used similar tactics on others.
Dean Spiros • 952-882-9203