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NIU attorney target of union complaint

Lawyer issued formal reprimand for his poor conduct toward janitor

An employee union at Northern Illinois University is asking for stronger punishments after it says a university attorney verbally berated a member of the cleaning staff over what it calls a minor issue.
An employee union at Northern Illinois University is asking for stronger punishments after it says a university attorney verbally berated a member of the cleaning staff over what it calls a minor issue.

DeKALB – A woman who works as a janitor at Northern Illinois University, along with her union, says NIU administration should take more action following an incident during which an NIU attorney "verbally berated" over what they call a minor issue, making her fear for her safety.

Susan Phelps, who's worked as a janitor at NIU for 13 years, said she's unable to work because she feels traumatized after the incident, and is currently using her sick leave and vacation time. The attorney, Sanat Ranganathan, associate general counsel for the university, was issued a formal reprimand, instructed to undergo human resources training, and allowed to continue working.

In a statement to the Daily Chronicle, Ranganathan apologized for the incident, said things were blown out of proportion, and that he thought the incident was "collegial."

In an open letter sent June 3 to NIU President Lisa Freeman, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 963 condemns what they call NIU's lack of action reprimanding the man, which they call an "urgent safety concern."

The letter, sent by staff representative Sara Dorner, said allowing the man to return to work sends the wrong message to employees.

"We feel that NIU should have a zero tolerance policy, we thought they did," Dorner said. "This man verbally accosted a female coworker. She attempted to escape him, he followed her twice. [NIU administration] sent a message that this behavior is acceptable. This is sending message about a perceived class system."

Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show Ranganathan was hired by NIU in 2015 and makes $80,000 a year. Phelps said she wants Ranganathan fired.

Tissue issue

Around 7:30 a.m. on April 23 Phelps, 52, was cleaning offices on the third floor of Altgeld Hall, the same building which houses NIU President Lisa Freeman's office, near NIU's General Counsel staff. Phelps, who's been with NIU for 13 years, said she heard a man's voice asking who was there, and she responded that she was cleaning.

All of a sudden, Phelps said a man, who documents obtained through FOIA requests identify as Ranganathan, charged in.

"This guy started yelling at me, asking how long I'd worked there, how long had my coworkers worked there," Phelps said in a phone interview. "He said 'How dare you go to my boss about this problem we were having with tissues?'"

Phelps said Ranganathan was throwing his arms in the air and screaming, and she placed a garbage bin in between them because she was afraid he would strike her, according to documents. Documents also show Phelps had in November approached a staff member in the office because there was someone leaving tissues on the floor and she wanted them to clean up better after themselves. The person leaving tissues in their office in November was not Ranganathan, according to documents, but in April he thought Phelps was accusing him of being the messy employee.

Ranganathan was issued a formal letter of reprimand by Gregory Brady, head of the general counsel office, which provides legal aid and services to NIU administration and the board of trustees. Brady said Ranganathan's actions were "unacceptable" and "not what is expected of [his] position."

"You appear to have trouble letting go of incidents," Brady said in his letter. "The tissue matter was from November 2018. Yet, you approached [Phelps] about it in April 2019."

Brady also said Ranganathan appears to be concerns about inconsequential matters, and his behavior illustrated that he seems unable to "adequately acknowledge boundaries of personal space of interaction with other people."

"It it clear to me that [Phelps] gave you verbal and non-verbal cues that she wished to no longer continue the conversation with you," Brady said.

Attorney's response

In a statement to the Daily Chronicle, Ranganathan said he never met Phelps before that day in April, and claimed the conversation was "collegial" and "friendly." He said he only followed Phelps into the stairwell to clarify why she was upset, and said he was sorry for what he deemed a "miscommunication."

"I hollered across the hallway that I was coming downstairs, 'I just wanted to add, please tell your colleague to verify the right person next time, as it makes me look bad,' " Ranganathan said. "And then she started crying and going away. I was shocked as to why and followed her a bit to as [why she was crying]."

Phelps said Ranganathan "charged" toward her in the stairwell, shouting "we're not done."

NIU Police officials did not respond to requests for comment, but police documents show multiple witnesses corroborated Phelps' claims.

Phelps said after the incident she reported Ranganathan's behavior to Brady,as well as NIU Human Resources.

The university conducted an investigation, during which time Ranganathan was instructed to work from home from May 13 until May 28, when he was allowed to return to work, said NIU Spokesperson Lisa Miner. He was also ordered to complete an employee assistance program with HR to address behavior and conduct, Miner said.

He returned to campus on May 28, the letter shows, after being on leave for 11 days. He remained on campus through April 26, after which he went on a two-week vacation, and then was instructed to be on leave pending the investigation, Miner said.

Note: This article has been edited with a clarification that Ranganathan was instructed to work from home May 13 to May 28, said NIU Spokesperson Lisa Miner.

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