A former Pitt employee filed a civil complaint on Oct. 4 against the University in federal court for allegedly firing her based on a disability, and retaliating against her when she sought to continue workplace accommodations.
Estelle Belko, a former employee in Pitt’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, alleged that the University’s actions violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. She asked the court to award her back and front pay, lost benefits, damages and legal fees.
In the complaint, Belko said Pitt hired her near August 2015, and she disclosed her epilepsy diagnosis before joining the University as its assistant director of financial aid special programs. Three OAFA managers were made aware of her condition — Peggie Dunklin, then the director of budget and human resources, Randy McCready, currently the executive director of financial aid, and Janet McLaughlin, currently an associate director of financial aid.
For the first several months of her employment, according to the complaint, Belko did not suffer from any seizures. She then experienced one on Nov. 19, 2015, and another on Feb. 26, 2016, which led to concerns from her managers. Belko arranged for the Epilepsy Foundation to discuss how her managers could be most helpful to her.
But after returning to work on March 21, 2016, following a third seizure, Belko said she found her managers waiting to speak to her about her epilepsy.
“[Then-Director of Employee and Labor Relations Jane Volk] had directed Belko to meet with the [University’s Office of Disability Resources and Services] because Dunklin, McLaughlin and McCready ‘had gone too far’ in trying to accommodate Belko during her last seizure,” the complaint said.
According to the complaint, McCready made further remarks about Belko’s condition during the meeting.
“McCready noted that Belko had experienced more seizures than they anticipated. McCready then said that there were no ‘current plans to replace’ Belko, but that ‘if the seizures continue it could affect your position,’” the complaint said. “McCready also told Belko that while she was doing good work, her [seizures] were a ‘distraction’ to her co-workers.”
Belko later met with DRS Director Leigh Culley regarding her condition.
“Culley explained to Belko that it was the University’s ‘goal’ to place Belko on a leave of absence as an accommodation until Belko’s medications got her seizure disorder under control,” the complaint said.
In response, Belko provided medical papers authorizing her return to work and said she did not want to take a leave of absence.
After repeated pressure from her managers, the complaint said, Belko did take a leave of absence in mid-2016. But later that year, Belko was hospitalized and took a second leave of absence following an episode of severe depression.
Once she returned to work, Dunklin and McCready told Belko she might be put on a Performance Improvement Plan due to her medical leaves. She experienced two seizures in November 2016, and took another medical leave of absence with short-term disability benefits.
But Belko was allegedly blocked by the University when she tried to return to work, even after she supplied approving documentation from medical professionals.
Belko had Dr. Anto Bagic, the epilepsy division chief of UPMC’s neurology department, submit a letter approving her return to work to Pitt.
“There is no obstacle from epilepsy point of view for [Belko’s] full return to work,” Bagic said in the letter.
Volk responded and said the University still had “serious questions” about Belko’s condition, raising the question that Bagic may have “overlooked” several issues. She also provided a new ultimatum — Belko needed to provide a “satisfactory release from all … treating physicians,” by Feb. 28, 2017 or would be terminated as an employee.
The University listed a job posting on Feb. 14, 2017, for Belko’s position.
But Belko was auto-approved on Feb. 22, 2017, for long-term disability benefits, since she had been on short-term disability benefits for six months. She alleged that this provided the University a reason to fire her. Belko was sent a termination letter from Pitt the following day.
Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick did not respond to a request for comment.