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Maryland Legal Aid pays $100,000 settlement to former Anne Arundel attorney who raised COVID safety concerns

Maryland Legal Aid has paid $100,000 to settle a discrimination claim filed last year by a former employee who raised COVID-19 safety concerns in its Anne Arundel County office.

The organization, which offers free legal representation throughout the state, reached an agreement on July 8 with former supervising attorney Lisa Sarro to pay her $92,200, the equivalent of one year’s salary, plus $10,000 toward her legal fees, according to a copy of the settlement agreement obtained by The Capital in a public records request.

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Nearly a year prior, Sarro had accused the organization where she had worked for nearly 23 years of firing her and three colleagues in retaliation for raising concerns about unsafe working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. She filed a complaint with Maryland Occupational Health and Safety in late August 2020.

After a five-month investigation concluded in January, MOSH found “reasonable cause to believe a violation exists” and referred the case to Assistant Attorney General Catherine Bellinger for further legal review. Seven months later, a settlement agreement was reached between Sarro and Wilhelm Joseph, Maryland Legal Aid’s executive director, documents show. Matthew Helminiak, Commissioner of Labor and Industry in the Maryland Department of Labor, served as a mediator in the negotiation.

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In exchange for the lump sum, Sarro agreed not to sue or bring future claims under the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Act against her former employer. Maryland Legal Aid admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

Sarro, who has since been hired as general counsel for the Arundel Community Development Corporation, declined to comment on the settlement.

Everything she had to say was in the MOSH complaint, she said.

In the filing, made on Aug. 22, 2020, Sarro laid out a detailed timeline leading up to her firing about the oral and written communications she had made to upper management about safety concerns in Annapolis. All 12 Maryland Legal Aid offices had closed to the public in March because of the pandemic. In May, Chief Operating Officer Gustava Taler had organized a committee to begin making re-opening plans.

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Sarro warned the organization’s executive management team, including Joseph, Taler and Deputy Chief Counsel Gina Polley, that it would not be safe to reopen the Annapolis office unless precautions were taken, such as allowing employees with children or health issues to work from home when necessary.

“I am not saying we shouldn’t be working. I am saying we ARE working, and that we need tools and flexibility so that we can continue working even more effectively (and safely),” Sarro wrote in an email to Joseph in June 2020.

Joseph and Polley, who both announced in December their plans to retire, and Taler did not respond to a request for comment.

In later emails, Sarro warned that making employees and clients return to the Annapolis office, housed in an old building in the shadow of the Naval Academy, could be unsafe because it lacked working windows and had “no way of circulating fresh air” other than through an old unreliable ventilation system, she wrote.

In another email, written just three days before staff was required to return to MLA offices at 50% capacity, she wrote the office was “not ready for having staff ... in more than short chunks of time until it is clear the ventilation system is working satisfactorily with adequate filters in place.”

Sarro’s former boss, Chief Attorney Anita Bailey, had voiced similar concerns.

Bailey, along with chief attorneys from two other offices, Blake Fetrow and John Marshall, was among 11 office heads who signed a letter to upper management on July 17, 2020, to request additional flexibility in the firm’s reopening plans such as making accommodations for employees with children and with disabilities.

The trio, plus Sarro who did not sign the letter, were fired a week later. Bailey, Fetrow and Marshall later filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The status of those complaints is unknown.

Maryland Legal Aid maintains the veteran attorneys were fired for cause. In Sarro’s exit interview, Polley wrote that management had “lost confidence” in her ability to lead.

When Sarro was summoned to Baltimore for a meeting with a human resources representative on the day she was fired, she was offered a separation agreement that included a payment of just over $39,000, plus $10,000 in vacation pay. In exchange, she would be bound by a confidentiality agreement, a non-disparagement clause and would be prohibited from filing lawsuits or complaints against the company, according to a copy of the proposed agreement.

She declined.

“Maryland Legal Aid offered a substantial sum to buy Ms. Sarro’s silence about having been fired,” Peter Holland, Sarro’s attorney, wrote to MOSH investigators in October 2020. “MLA clearly would not have made such an offer if they truly had a ‘legitimate, non-discriminatory’ reason for firing her.”

In a response to investigators on Sept. 28, 2020, the law firm representing Maryland Legal Aid, Baker Donelson, wrote that Sarro had been fired because she “engaged in conduct that was disloyal, disruptive of and adverse to reasonable decisions” made by executive management and a committee of her colleagues tasked with creating reopening guidelines.

Their statement alleged Sarro had “plotted” with other office managers to write the July 17 letter and to disregard the organization’s reopening plan, an act that constituted “blatant misconduct and insubordinate disregard” for her superiors, they wrote. Attorneys for MLA also wrote that ventilation issues were eventually addressed in August, weeks after Sarro and Bailey were fired.

MOSH investigators disagreed, concluding the letter was not at all threatening or insubordinate, further stating that Maryland Legal Aid could not “substantiate its non-discriminatory reason for terminating” Sarro and “painted a picture of (Sarro) attempting to wrest power from the Executives of MLA.”

Sarro was treated differently from other employees “by being one of four out of 11 employees,” who were “sought out and then punished for their involvement in the July 17 letter,” investigators wrote.

Bailey, who retained Greenbelt attorney Linda Thatcher, and filed a MOSH complaint similar to Sarro’s in August 2020, withdrew her complaint in February. Thatcher declined to say why the complaint had been withdrawn.

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Bailey has recently accepted an offer to become a legal assistance attorney in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate in the Army Installation Management Command at Fort Meade.

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“All issues between Legal Aid and me were resolved to our mutual satisfaction,” she said.

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