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Woodbury insurer sued by EEOC over firing

A federal agency said Monday it has sued Sterling & Sterling Inc., a Woodbury insurance brokerage, charging that it illegally fired an African-American sales rep after she complained of repeated racial and sexual discrimination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Amityville resident Rochelle Legette, 43, who had worked at Sterling since March 2007, was fired in March 2010 after she filed with the EEOC, alleging that she was subjected to "racially discriminatory remarks" about President Barack Obama before and after his election and to comments about the ghetto and interracial couples during the time she worked at the company. The agency also has charged that Legette faced repeated sexually explicit stories and jokes, despite complaints to management.

Sterling, which brokers a wide array of business and personal insurance and employee benefits, denied the allegations.

"These allegations are entirely without merit, and we have both evidence and witnesses that will confirm they are false," the company said in a statement. "Allegations are easy to make, but we are very confident the truth will prevail." According to the company's website, its annual insurance premiums total more than $300 million.

The EEOC, which litigates less than half of 1 percent of the complaints it receives annually, is suing on the retaliation charge, said agency trial attorney Michael J. O'Brien, who is handling the case.

The EEOC received 99,922 discrimination complaints in the fiscal year ended 2010. In most cases, the EEOC investigates and gives plaintiffs a letter giving them the right to sue in federal court.

"Retaliation is illegal because it discourages employees from coming to the EEOC," O'Brien said.

The EEOC declined to make Legette available for comment.

The company cited the EEOC filing made by Legette when it suspended her on Feb. 19, 2010, the agency alleges in its complaint filed on Friday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

Legette filed with the EEOC in September 2009, six months after taking an "extended" pregnancy leave, according to the complaint. When she returned to work on Feb. 1, 2010, the company began keeping detailed notes on her behavior at work, the complaint said. On Feb. 19, 2010, it suspended her, and on March 1 that year it fired her, the complaint said.

The agency is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for Legette and back pay. Damages are capped at $300,000 under Title VII anti-discrimination laws.

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