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Settlement expected in reservist's lawsuit against Johnstown yogurt maker

Tuesday, September 24, 2013
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— A military reservist will likely settle his long-running worker discrimination case against a Johnstown yogurt-maker out of court, his attorney said Tuesday.

Quentin Hallenbeck, a member of the Air Force Reserve, filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Court back in October 2011 after he was passed over for a promotion at Fage USA Dairy Industries, where he worked at the time.

The suit claimed “Hallenbeck faced disparate treatment in which he was denied a promotion, given less preferable shifts and dealt with hostile supervisors based on his military status and military obligations.”

Originally, the Montgomery County resident demanded $250,000 in compensation.

Hallenbeck’s attorney, Daniel Maloy of Schenectady, said Tuesday “if all goes on the current track, we should have a settlement signed within the next month.”

A meeting scheduled for Thursday in Montgomery County between Maloy and Hoey King Toker & Epstein, the Manhattan law firm representing Fage, was canceled as settlement talks neared completion.

Maloy couldn’t comment on what the settlement might involve, citing potential confidentiality agreements.

“It’s not totally official yet,” he said.

Fage officials could not be reached, and their law firm did not return calls Tuesday.

When Fage hired Hallenbeck in February 2010, Hallenbeck claims in legal papers they knew he’d have to leave work for extended periods to fulfill his military responsibilities. But after he was hired, his military status became a major problem with his employers, the papers say.

The lawsuit does not indicate what Hallenbeck job was at Fage, but at some point during his employment, he said he applied for a promotion. He considered himself fully qualified for the better position but was passed over in favor a less-qualified woman “due to her not having military obligations and no military status,” the complaint said.

He also claims in court papers he was harassed on numerous occasions and placed in a hostile work environment due to “supervisors which were unhappy with his military deployment schedule.”

By August 2011, just a year and a half after starting, Hallenbeck quit.

Military officials say the situation Hallenbeck describes is far from unique.

“Many employers count members of the military reserve as their best employees,” said Col. Richard Goldenberg, a spokesman for the state’s Division of Military and Naval Affairs. “They have proven skill sets, but they also have separate obligations.”

The problem, he said, is reserve military personnel such as Hallenbeck have to go to regular training sessions and can be deployed for as much as a year at a time.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act protects soldiers’ civilian jobs while they are away and ensures they get any automatic step promotions other employees receive.

Goldenberg said keeping soldiers employed is the country’s duty, pointing out most companies are happy to keep a soldier’s position open, even if it means hiring a temporary worker. But it’s not a perfect system.

“Imagine the guy who fixes a certain machine has to leave for nine months,” he said. “That’s a problem.”

Most employer-reservist disputes are handled without legal action, according to William Tracy, a state administrator for the Department of Defense Office of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. Some of those problems are solved through his office. Others are never brought up.

He said employment discrimination allegations are incredibly hard to prove in court.

“Unless an employer tells a soldier he’s not getting a promotion because he’s in the military, it’s very hard to prove,” he said.

Hallenbeck’s case was also drawn out significantly longer than the average lawsuit. Maloy said the case was delayed by a two-year string of complications.

Hoey King Toker & Epstein is based in New York City — a long drive from Montgomery County. “Plus they were hit by Hurricane Sandy,” Maloy said. “Hallenbeck got deployed at one point. It usually doesn’t take nearly this long.”

 
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