RIOC retaliation was such a well-established feature that I heard about it fifteen years ago when I began reporting on Roosevelt Island. It was never clear that it was anything more than rumor. But its reality may have been proven and struck rock bottom in a new lawsuit accusing three whistleblowers of “defamation, breach of fiduciary duty and duty of loyalty.”
by David Stone
“It’s a really dirty move to intimidate and shut up their opponents. Absolutely unbecoming of a government entity…” a legal advisor wrote.
RIOC Retaliation and Intimidation: A Reaction
Although the new lawsuit filed against Erica Spencer-EL, Amy Smith and Jessica Cerone does not so far cite a single instance of defamation, statements by RIOC’s outside counsel suggest some things so weirdly strange, they’d be laughable were it not for the pain.
“RIOC has made a conscious decision not to take the easy way out and pay off the plaintiffs to simply make this matter go away. To the contrary, RIOC has been defamed by the plaintiffs,” Howard Miller, the RIOC attorney, told Crains New York in an emailed statement.
“The plaintiffs” are the Roosevelt Island Operation Corporation – RIOC.
But then, he paints a broader picture.
“Because of the gravity of the false statements, which have hurt the entire Roosevelt Island community, RIOC is taking the unusual step of bringing its own suit against the plaintiffs to vindicate its own rights and clear the good name of Roosevelt Island from what amounts to a petty money-grab. The community deserves to have any taint caused by the plaintiffs to be removed.”
Is RIOC, In Fact, Roosevelt Island
There is, to our knowledge, no evidence that Spencer-EL, Smith, and Cerone’s lawsuit “hurt the entire Roosevelt Island community.” Their allegations target RIOC and, specifically, President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes, AVP Tijuna Sharpe, and Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson.
Having read through their lawsuit more than once, we are not aware of any clearly “false statements” by them.
What’s more troubling is the conflation of Roosevelt Island with RIOC. That’s false. RIOC is a state agency ultimately run by Governor Kathy Hochul, and Roosevelt Island is a community with which it does not sustain a healthy relationship.
As for the stated need to “…clear the good name of Roosevelt Island from what amounts to a petty money-grab…” That’s nonsense. Roosevelt Island’s “good name” is not in question here. And dragging a community into RIOC’s sordid internal employee battles probably does more harm than good.
Apart from RIOC Retaliation, What More Is In Play Here?
“RIOC is intimidating the three former employees in the following ways,” our legal expert says. “(1) they want to scare and rattle them, and (2) they are making them spend money on counsel.”
We don’t know if that’s what’s truly in RIOC’s collective minds, but if this is true, you’d assume that intimidation toward future whistleblowers is part of the scheme.
About Duty of Loyalty
This is a strange and worrisome basis for suing whistleblowers.
Duty of loyalty” is a legal concept that refers to the fiduciary duty owed to an entity by its directors, officers, employees, and members. It requires those in positions of trust within an organization to always act in the organization’s best interest and not in their own personal interests or those of another party.
This duty is essential for maintaining trust between members of the organization and ensuring that all decisions, actions, and activities are always beneficial toward achieving organizational goals.
The duty of loyalty applies to both public and private organizations and governmental bodies. In some cases, violations of this duty can be subject to civil or criminal liability depending on the circumstances.
But the problem here is that, if we accept this criterion in this case, it may mean that anyone failing to toe the company line is guilty. And that conflicts with whistleblower and other employee protections.
About Retaliation and Intimidation
What are retaliation and intimidation against employees?
Retaliation and intimidation against employees take many forms. Examples include the employer firing, demoting, transferring or suspending an employee for filing a complaint about discrimination or harassment in the workplace, for refusing to follow orders that are unlawful or unethical in nature.
It may also involve threats of physical or psychological harm, unjustified criticism and insults. Discouraging employee complaints is the goal.
But employees have rights. Retaliation and intimidation are prohibited by law in most states. In cases where it does occur, employees should seek help from an experienced employment lawyer who can help them pursue legal action and stand up for their rights.
That is exactly what Spencer-EL, Smith and Cerone did. And now, as a result, they are on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by RIOC.
“In defending a defamation suit, obviously, there is no recovery for defendants. Therefore, their legal fees would likely have to be out of pocket.” In other words, Spencer-EL, Smith and Cerone must pay attorney fees out of personal resources, regardless of the merits of the case, while RIOC just pulls cash out of its budget with no cost to Haynes, Robinson or Sharpe.
We’ll save the last word for a RIOC insider:
“How crazy is that in America, in 2023, a government entity is affirmatively suing whistleblowers for defamation? Does anybody still believe in the first amendment? Is it totally OK for a public benefit corporation to use the government’s money to shut up its former employees by bringing lawsuits against them because they don’t have the same resources as the government?”
Someone should ask Governor Kathy Hochul if this is the kind of thing her administration approves and finds ethical.