xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Former Maryland Legal Aid attorney files discrimination complaint alleging she was offered $40,000 to keep silent about her firing

A former Maryland Legal Aid attorney says she was fired by the organization in retaliation and offered nearly $40,000 to keep quiet about her termination.

Lisa Sarro, a 22-year veteran of the pro bono firm, has filed a federal discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against her former employer, according to a copy of a complaint obtained by The Capital. It alleges she was fired in July after sounding the alarm to leadership about the health and safety dangers posed to staff and clients by reopening the Annapolis-based office amid the coronavirus pandemic. The complaint also alleges she was offered tens of thousands of dollars as part of a separation agreement with the organization, a common document used by companies to set out terms of an employee’s departure.

Advertisement

Sarro did not accept the agreement, which stipulated that in exchange for $39,313.15 — as well as nearly $10,000 in unpaid vacation time — she could “resign in lieu of termination,” according to a copy of the separation agreement obtained by The Capital. By signing the agreement, she would be forbidden to talk about the nature of her firing and prohibited from publicly disparaging or filing lawsuits against the company.

The Nov. 19 filing made to the federal commission and the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights follows an array of similar complaints, no-confidence votes and a wave of criticism from current and former employees toward the organization’s executive team over the last four months after Sarro and three colleagues were fired in July.

Advertisement

The longtime executive director of the legal services firm, Wilhelm Joseph, and another member of his team, Deputy Chief Counsel Gina Polley, are both expected to retire amid the backlash.

Sarro’s complaint lays out a detailed timeline before and after her firing. It includes repeated attempts by her and Anita Bailey, the Anne Arundel chief attorney, and other office managers to raise concerns about proposed reopening plans. They requested flexibility for workers, especially those in a higher-risk category like older employees and those with preexisting conditions.

“Maryland Legal Aid failed to make any accommodations I requested,” Sarro wrote, adding that she was “publicly berated and shut down” for doing so.

“MLA now fully admits I was fired because I sought those reasonable accommodations to ensure the safety of MLA staff working in the time of COVID-19,” she wrote.

Sarro, who served as supervising attorney for 14 years, and has been with the organization since 1997, declined to comment for this article.

In an email, a spokesperson for Maryland Legal Aid declined to comment on Sarro’s complaint because it involved a personnel matter, saying it isn’t the organization’s “policy or practice to discuss personnel actions outside of the appropriate forums.”

“MLA’s focus has been and continues to be on serving the civil legal needs of Maryland’s poor, with particular emphasis on those impacted by the current COVID-19 pandemic,” said Alec Chase, MLA marketing and communications coordinator.

Peter Holland, Sarro’s attorney, said his client was “fired after she stood up for the health and safety of her coworkers” and “turned down an offer of money in exchange for her silence.”

The complaint is similar to those made by Bailey and two other fired chief attorneys, Blake Fetrow and John Marshall, the heads of the Metro and Montgomery offices, respectively. They also allege retaliation and discrimination. They claim Maryland Legal Aid fired them as part of a consistent “pattern and practice” to “move out the older, more experienced employees and replace them with younger, less experienced ones,” Sarro wrote.

The complaints filed by Bailey, and Fetrow and Marshall, are still under investigation. All three declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing legal matter.

Maryland Legal Aid’s union filed an additional complaint on behalf of the three chief attorneys, which the National Labor Relations Board denied on Nov. 27.

The three were among 11 office heads who signed a letter expressing safety concerns. A week later, on July 24, they and Sarro were summoned to the firm’s Baltimore headquarters and told they were being fired.

Advertisement

A copy of an exit interview checklist completed by Sarro and Polley in that meeting shows the reason she was fired as “Executive Team lost confidence in your ability to lead office.” In the margin of the form, Sarro wrote, “in retaliation for seeking safe employment conditions for staff and clients.” She also indicated her reason for leaving as the executive team’s “lack of concern for safety” of the staff and clients.

Both Sarro and Polley signed the document and Sarro indicated in her complaint that Polley signed after her comment was added and made no effort to contradict her. Maryland Legal Aid did not respond to specific questions about Sarro’s or the others’ firings.

“I believe my retaliatory firing was also meant to send a threatening message to other staff,” Sarro wrote in her complaint. “The message executive management was sending is clear: if you push back on our plans to reopen, regardless of the legitimacy of your concerns, you too will be fired.”

Last week, the organization announced it was suspending until further notice all walk-in intakes at all offices, effective Monday.

Telephone and online intake and certain outreach activities will continue, Chase said.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement