Amato, CWAG hope legal nightmare is over

Former private sector and current nonprofit executive says he was unfairly targeted in employment discrimination complaints.

Nino Amato thought his tenure at the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups would be the job that quietly took him into retirement. In his 33 years as a senior executive in both the public and private sectors, spanning from 1977 to 2010, he never had a single job discrimination complaint filed against him before Madison Equal Opportunities Division, the city agency that enforces civil rights laws.

That all changed when he joined CWAG and eventually landed on the wrong end of three employment-discrimination complaints, including one allegation of age discrimination that cost the group a chance for a $1.5 million government grant. None of the complaints resulted in a legal defeat, unless you count the $150,000 in legal defense costs that otherwise could have been applied to senior advocacy.

After receiving civil rights and social justice awards from the YWCA, the Greater Madison Urban League, and the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission’s Reverend James Wright Human Rights Award, not to mention leading a local effort for divestment in South African apartheid, Amato was taken aback.

Nino Amato

“I never thought I would ever be on this side,” he states.

The fact that he had once served for six years on the old MEOC, including two years as its president, did not spare him or the organization from the public hit of a front-page headline.

He’s not exactly certain about the motivation for the filings, but notes that he came into a nonprofit with a politically charged environment that was on financially shaky ground, and it was his job to make necessary changes.

One thing he is sure about is that both he and the organization, which has since moved out of the city of Madison, selling its old building at a loss from market value, were vindicated in the long legal process that followed.

Until the first case was filed in late 2011 — the complainant dropped the case and signed a written statement clearing CWAG and Amato of any discrimination against her — Amato had never been accused of discrimination in previous management stints at First Realty (1977–1982), the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater (1982–1985), Wisconsin Power & Light, now a unit of Alliant Energy (1985–1998), the former Meriter Health Services (1998–2002), or his own strategic planning and marketing firm, Nino Amato & Associates (2002–2010).

A second MEOD case found “no probable cause” in a first or second filing, and the matter eventually was dropped after CWAG produced evidence that undercut the claim. CWAG also emerged victorious in the third discrimination complaint, but not before waiting more than four years to clear its name.

Needless to say, Amato had no idea he would encounter a series of legal headaches when he joined CWAG in 2010. “I thought this was going to be my sweetheart retirement job in that I would not work 80 hours a week like I used to, especially after my kids grew up,” he says. “I thought I’d be working 50, maybe 60 hours a week. I had no idea.”

Add to that the fact that he has a vested interest in the MEOD, an agency he once played a role in streamlining, and he was more than a little bewildered. “I gave six years of my life,” he recounts. “I have been a strong civil rights advocate speaking from a business perspective. I was the first one to talk about divestiture of apartheid in 1985, on stage with Coretta Scott King. This is right after the [UW–Madison] students camped out on the lawn. I had just joined Wisconsin Power & Light and gave a speech that it was time that we embraced our American and constitutional values, and called for university divestiture and state divestiture of apartheid. Later on, that became the politically correct thing to do.”

Amato will always wonder whether his civil rights background made him a tempting newsworthy target. In addition to serving the aforementioned organizations, he co-authored (with David Lefkowith) a book titled Today’s Hidden Racism: A Polite Apartheid, in which he explored racial disparities in education, health care, income, employment, and the criminal justice system.

“So here I am, having been a big advocate of the sex orientation part of the arguments, and then when I was president I was way ahead of the time and wanted what I called alternative family riders, which gave people the right to have health insurance based upon their alternative families. Now we call that domestic partnerships.”

Amato called the allegations devastating, in part because he believes the process was unfair, particularly when the filing hit the newspapers without sufficient opportunity to refute the claims in writing. In the old days, he says the press agreed to back off until the respondent had a chance to file a written response.

“So now that stigma hangs over us,” Amato states.



Discriminating judgment

In the October edition of In Business magazine, Amato recommended several process improvements that he claims would create a level playing field between plaintiffs and respondents before the MEOD.

Mike Fox

Taking issue with Amato’s recommendations was attorney Mike Fox of Fox & Fox S.C. the law firm that represented the three CWAG plaintiffs. Fox denies that Amato was targeted because his past commitment to civil rights would make him a newsworthy, man-bites-dog target. Fox contends the firm would be less likely to advance a claim against Mr. Amato because of the role he had with a city agency charged with enforcing civil rights laws. 

“To the contrary, his involvement with a civil rights agency and in civil rights issues would make it less likely we would accept and prosecute claims against him,” Fox states. “To put that in context, we accept, on average, one to three of approximately 60 or more employment case inquiries per month. Thus the probability or our taking a case such as those the firm prosecuted on behalf of Mr. Amato’s employees is already quite low.

“Given Mr. Amato’s public roles and involvement in civil rights issues, we would be even more unlikely to accept a case against him. Under no circumstances would we prosecute a claim unless we reasonably believed the employee had a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. To do otherwise would be quite counterproductive given we are only paid if we prevail.”

Fox also notes that discrimination cases are some of the most difficult civil cases under law to successfully prosecute because they require proof of illegal intent. Therefore, the credibility that might be accorded to the person who is alleged to have made an illegal employment decision “is one critical factor that carries weight in the firm’s decision to take an employee’s case.”

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.