WEST FARMS – When Hurricane Sandy struck last year, Spc. Ninfa Soto put her life and job as a teacher's aide on hold for nearly a month to help the city recover.
An Army National Guard member, Soto was activated for duty on Oct. 28, 2012, and for the next three weeks worked 16-hour days patrolling streets to prevent looting, rescuing residents stranded in floodwaters and delivering food to the needy.
When she finally returned to her job at P.S. 67 in the Bronx on Nov. 26, 2012, she thought her life would return to normal. Instead the war veteran’s return to the classroom turned into a battle to get her job back.
Soto, 46, was fired as a paraprofessional in May after school investigations determined she tried to pawn off a personal day as part of her stint with the National Guard performing Sandy duties.
In a lawsuit she filed Tuesday, Soto claims it was a misunderstanding stemming from a paperwork snafu. She is suing the city and the Department of Education, claiming her principal was out to get her fired and demanding she get her job back at the West Farms school.
"I can't believe it," Soto told DNAinfo.com New York of losing her job. "I still feel like I fell in a rabbit hole."
Soto, of Morrisania, had worked for the DOE since 1988. She joined the U.S. Army in 1992. Four years later, she was part of the U.S. intervention in Bosnia. In 2004, she was activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During Hurricane Sandy, she endured torrential downpours, driving through floodwaters and responding to cars on fire in Long Beach, LI, and the Rockaways. Throughout the recovery, she slept two to three hours a day on a cot in a military reserve building without power, her lawsuit says.
Soto claims she worked from Oct. 28, 2012, to Nov. 20, 2012, on Sandy, reporting her absences to the payroll department. The lawsuit says that on the night of Nov. 20, Soto was feeling sick from her service. Following protocol, she called the school payroll secretary and told her she would be absent due to illness on Nov. 21.
After the Thanksgiving weekend, Soto returned to work on Nov. 26 and submitted a memo from her commanding officer in the Army detailing the days of her military service. But in January 2013, the school payroll secretary informed her that the documentation had gone missing and she needed to resubmit an absence letter.
In February 2013 Soto went to her commanding officer to get a new letter, informing him of the dates she needed verified. But his documentation included Nov. 21 as a day of service — not as a sick day.
The lawsuit claims Soto’s principal, Jeffrey Santiago, followed up with her commanding officer, learned of the discrepancy and seized on it. He accused her of trying to milk an extra sick day and reported her to the office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the city schools. The city investigators determined that she had submitted false documentation and recommended her termination, the lawsuit says.
Soto says she made an honest mistake in communicating her days to her commander.
"Here I am I went away for service. I came back and this is what I got," Soto said. "It came out of left field. I felt I was discarded. They treated me like trash."
Soto also claims in the lawsuit that Santiago made her a target because she missed so many days due to her military service.
Santiago started at the school in September 2012. When Soto introduced herself to him, he “exhibited his discriminatory animus with respect to [her] military service” and said, “So you’re the one who has been out for 50 days,” according to her lawsuit.
"I have no idea what his agenda was," Soto said. "I was basically doing what I have been doing for the last 24 years."
"The termination of a veteran paraprofessional who has spent the better part of her life assisting the children of New York City achieve their goals and aspirations, and who proudly served her country and the State of New York by providing assistance and protection to those affected by Superstorm Sandy under severe and inhuman conditions should not be allowed to stand, and it is our hope that the court remedies this injustice," her lawyer Jason Wolf added.
The city Education Department declined to comment on pending litigation. The Law Department said it would review the lawsuit when it received a copy.