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Woman claims BNY Mellon fired her for Antwon Rose-related Facebook post because she's white

Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, 9:33 p.m.
A group of around 500 protesters confront Pittsburgh Police by kneeling and raising their hands chanting ‘Hands Up,’ on Pittsburgh’s South Side, Saturday, June 23, 2018, to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose.
A group of around 500 protesters confront Pittsburgh Police by kneeling and raising their hands chanting ‘Hands Up,’ on Pittsburgh’s South Side, Saturday, June 23, 2018, to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose.
Protesters march towards downtown from the Hill District protesting the shooting death of Antwon Rose by East Pittsburgh police on June 26, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Protesters march towards downtown from the Hill District protesting the shooting death of Antwon Rose by East Pittsburgh police on June 26, 2018.
A woman raises her in front of stopped traffic after more than 150 people took over the Parkway East in both directions, Thursday, June 22, 2018  to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld East fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, a Woodland Hills High School honors student.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A woman raises her in front of stopped traffic after more than 150 people took over the Parkway East in both directions, Thursday, June 22, 2018 to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld East fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, a Woodland Hills High School honors student.

A former employee claims in a lawsuit that BNY Mellon fired her after she made a social media comment referencing a group protesting the police shooting of unarmed teen Antwon Rose , court records show.

The lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that Lisa Ellis, a Mt. Lebanon resident and senior analyst at the company’s wealth management department in Pittsburgh, was fired because she is white. It accuses BNY Mellon officials of violating employment discrimination and civil rights laws by firing her “without notice and without conducting an investigation” on July 3, three days after she made a Facebook post flagged as controversial.

“We believe that she was targeted because she is white, and that she would not have been fired if she was not white,” Vincent Colianni, the Pine Township-based attorney representing Ellis, said Monday.

On June 30, Ellis used her personal Facebook account to comment on a news article about reckless driving charges filed against Bell Acres Councilman Gregory C. Wagner for driving his car through a group of social justice activists whose protest shut down streets in the North Shore.

Ellis wrote, “Total BS. Too bad he didn’t have a bus to plow through.”

Ellis’ remark was among more than 2,000 comments responding to the Facebook thread.

Last week, Wagner, 58, was ordered to stand trial on charges of reckless endangerment and reckless driving for driving his Mercedes-Benz through the crowd of protesters on June 22. Three people reported injuries in the incident at Tony Dorsett Drive and West General Robinson Street, including one with a back injury and another with an ankle injury.

Protesters did not have permits to use public roads, but local police chose to help direct traffic and de-escalate rather than intensify tension after drawing on lessons from the likes of previous protests in Ferguson, Mo.

After reading about Wagner’s charges, “Ellis believed that the protesters were to blame and that the councilman was unjustly charged,” says the lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh and served to BNY Mellon officials on Monday. The company has 21 days to respond.

“It’s true that Lisa regrets her choice of words, but it was never meant as an attack or a criticism of Antwon Rose or his family or the protesters,” Colianni said.

“Her comment had nothing to do with the merits of the protest or what they’re advocating. … it was the methods and means they were using, blocking public streets and being very aggressive,” Colianni said. “She would have made the same remark had they been protesting climate change.”

BNY Mellon confirmed in a statement Monday that Ellis no longer works for the company.

“BNY Mellon expects our employees to adhere to our Code of Conduct and other policies to ensure a culture of diversity, inclusion and respect for all individuals,” the company said in a statement, declining to comment further on the pending litigation.

Ellis’ Facebook comment was “race-neutral,” Colianni said.

“The protest was about race, but she wasn’t critical of the merit of the protests or the underlying cause. She absolutely understands and sympathizes with their cause. It was their tactics,” Colianni said. “But, because her comment involved a protest over the shooting of a black man by a white police officer, the comment was construed as racist because it came from a white person.”

Ellis’ comment was not racially motivated, and “we don’t think that a reasonable person would perceive that as inciting violence or meaning it literally,” Colianni said. He said BNY Mellon does not have a policy prohibiting employees from expressing private views via social media and claims that the comment did not violate the company’s policy. She did not disseminate anything via email to coworkers nor did it interfere with her colleagues’ work or create a hostile work environment, Colianni said.

The lawsuit further alleges that activists worked with a BNY Mellon human resources official to solicit people to complain about Ellis and build a case to have her terminated, with some activists reportedly boasting about their ability to get white people fired, Colianni said.

According to the lawsuit, BNY Mellon provided “conflicting reasons” for firing Ellis, first referring to their code of conduct and later, when Ellis filed for unemployment benefits, saying she was fired for “poor job performance” — an assessment she claims contradicts prior positive performance reviews during her three-year tenure with the company.

The wrongful termination lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, including back pay, front pay and mental and emotional distress.

Because Pennsylvania is an at-will state, the burden of proof is on Ellis to show that BNY Mellon violated her rights and discriminated against her because of her race, said Tracey McCants Lewis, director of clinical legal education and associate professor at Duquesne University’s School of Law.

Ellis will have to show that others in similar positions and employment classes experienced a similar situation and were treated more favorably than her, and that the treatment differed primarily because of their race, McCants Lewis said.

Questionable comments and videos posted to social media have been increasingly popping up around the country, spurring more companies to scrutinize and update their codes of conduct and social media policies.

“On a national level, we’re seeing more cases like this,” McCants Lewis said.

Social media reactions rile employers

Thousands of protesters took to the streets and temporarily shut down thoroughfares across greater Pittsburgh in the days and weeks after Rose, 17, was shot and killed in June by East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld. Rosfeld, charged with homicide, remains free on $250,000 unsecured bond.

Among others in Western Pennsylvania who have found themselves out of a job, suspended from one or under pressure to resign in relation to social media posts made related to the incident:

Denise D. Healy lost her job with Alle­gheny Health Network last week after she posted on Facebook, “Good job to the policeman who took out the sorry piece of crap.” Another social media user shared Healy’s post with the health network. Days later, Allegheny Health Network said it was “no longer affiliated with” the employee.

Arnold Mayor Karen Peconi apologized after suggesting people protesting Rose’s shooting should be sprayed with powerful water cannons and that “none of them work.” Protesters have called for her resignation. Council members also have been vocal in their stance that Peconi should resign, and in July voted 4-0 to send a letter to the state Senate asking them to remove Peconi from office. Peconi’s attorney Sean Logue sent a letter to state Senate leaders advising them not to try to remove Peconi on Constitutional and other grounds.

• Firefighters from Freeport , Norvelt and Mt. Pleasant Borough were suspended for comments they made online.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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