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8/12/2004
07:00 PM
John Foley
John Foley
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Work/Life: When Things Go Wrong

Editor-at-large John Foley catches up with two IT pros who got fired after taking action. Work/Life is a column on some of the interesting people we meet.

Last October, the judge hearing the Perry-Gross suit in New York State Supreme Court dismissed some of the claims, ruling the actions of Collegis and New York Law didn't constitute sexual harassment under the state's human-rights law, a blow to the strategy of the lawyer representing Perry and Gross. Still, Justice Marcy Friedman indicated something seemed askew. "That they were terminated shortly after they reported finding child pornography, and despite unblemished employment records, raises a substantial question as to whether defendants were fired for reporting the professor's allegedly criminal activity," Friedman wrote.

Perry and Gross got new lawyers after Friedman's ruling. A U.S. Marine Perry met online--someone she's still never met in person--sent money to cover her new attorney's retainer after hearing of her plight. A former Collegis colleague loaned her thousands of dollars for other legal costs.

A determined woman, Perry has worked hard to keep her life together. While searching for a permanent IT job, she commuted for months from Brooklyn to a Cablevision Systems Corp. call center on Long Island, where she worked the night shift as a temp answering customer-support calls. That brought in about $400 a week and got her home at 4 a.m. Perry would sleep a few hours then take her son to school. On Sunday mornings, she attended job-training classes and earned a certificate in computer forensics. In April, Perry was hired as a computer-support technician by New York City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, in support of the agency's "311" call center in Manhattan. "Her performance here is outstanding," says Shakir Al-Saladin, director of server support with the department, who recommended Perry for the job.

Perry vows to keep fighting, and while she's taken a punch, she knows how to throw them, too. She works out at the Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn and is a certified boxing inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission. In April, she was assigned to the corner of former welterweight champion Ricardo Mayorga in a fight at Madison Square Garden.

Perry and Gross both still fume over getting canned and worry that, when the whole thing blows over, they'll be on the losing end. "It seems like people have forgotten about us and don't care," says Gross, now a help-desk analyst with a Web-development company in New York.

Perry's don't-back-down personality may be partly what got her into this mess. Her lawsuits allude to confrontations with her supervisors, and she admits to going to the FBI to report Samuels' child pornography when she thought New York Law's bureaucracy wasn't moving fast enough. Yet strong convictions served Perry well at that critical moment when she and Gross encountered those ugly images on Samuels' computer. It would have been easier to close the file and pretend that nothing happened.

That's why the cases' outcomes are so important. For Perry and Gross to be fired as they were--even if there were, as Collegis says, unrelated job-performance problems--sends a dangerous message to other IT administrators who may encounter illicit content: Take action at your own risk.

I contacted New York Law last week to get a better understanding of just what Perry and Gross did wrong, but an associate dean had no comment other than to reiterate that they had been employees of Collegis, not the school.

I talked to a Collegis spokesman, too, who also had nothing new to add. "Your call was the first I've heard of this since a year ago," he said. "We stand by what we said."

And what does Professor Samuels think of what happened to the two techies who worked on his PC? I asked him, via E-mail, to share his thoughts on that subject. His response: "I have no comment."

The legal fight and long layoff have worn Perry down, but the new job is giving her a much-needed lift. "I feel like I'm in a deep hole," she says, "and just starting to dig my way out."

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