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Friday, October 07, 2005

Dismissed for a sex change?

A transsexual sued a Melville company yesterday, alleging that it illegally terminated his employment contract after he informed executives that he is undergoing treatments to become a woman.

Robert Bonura, who now goes by the name of Rachel Bonura, alleges that Altana Inc., a specialty pharmaceutical and chemical company, discriminated against her on the basis of a disability and sexual orientation. Bonura lived on Long Island before moving to North Carolina 13 years ago. The complaint, filed in State Supreme Court in Riverhead, states that Bonura has "gender identity disorder" and told executives she planned to change her name to Rachel and wear women's clothing.

Her attorney, James Vagnini of Leeds, Morelli & Brown in Carle Place, filed the charges under state and Suffolk County laws that bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Although the Suffolk law specifies transsexuals as a protected class, the New York law doesn't, Vagnini and other lawyers said. The company's lawyer, Gary Glaser of Seyfarth Shaw in Manhattan, declined to comment.

Bonura, a pharmacist, said she had two contracts with Altana. The second was signed Jan. 4 and was scheduled to run through the end of this year. On March 14, according to the complaint, a company vice president named in the suit even offered her a full-time job. But Bonura said she declined because she didn't want to move back to Long Island. She is married and has two grown children and one granddaughter.

The vice president then agreed that she could continue working under contract, the complaint says. On March 17, she told the vice president and other Altana employees that she suffers from Gender Identity Disorder, the complaint states. Then on March 25, she received a certified letter saying that the contract was canceled despite receiving e-mails from supervisors praising her work just days earlier, she said. The company didn't say what led to the cancellation, she said. "It felt like I was praised and everything was fine and then the next week I was crucified," Bonura said.

Vagnini said the company discriminated against her "due to her disability, sexual orientation and/or gender violation." New York State's law doesn't specifically offer transgender and transsexual people protection, but state courts since the 1970s "have recognized that transgendered people are protected by sexual-discrimination laws," said Sharon McGowan, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

Attorney Robert Lipman of Lipman & Plesur in Jericho, who has successfully represented employers in transgender lawsuits, said the outcome depends on how overt the alleged bias is. "If you have those 'dumb' comments or if you have actions that can't be explained by the employer, the employee may have a good case," he said.


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