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Museum Head Trying to Evict Grandma from Little Italy Was Sued for Sexism

By Lisha Arino | May 13, 2015 7:33am
 The Italian American Museum, located on the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets. The museum owns 185 Grand St., where 85-year-old Little Italy resident Adele Sarno has lived since 1962.
The Italian American Museum, located on the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets. The museum owns 185 Grand St., where 85-year-old Little Italy resident Adele Sarno has lived since 1962.
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DNAinfo/Lisha Arino

MANHATTAN — The Italian American Museum’s move to evict an 85-year-old grandmother from her longtime Little Italy apartment shocked many New Yorkers — but not the two women who won a $1 million settlement after suing the museum’s president for gender discrimination 16 years ago.

“It’s not surprising because he’s behaving the same way he always does,” said Gloria Salerno who, along with her colleague Emelise Aleandri, took the museum’s director, Joseph V. Scelsa, to court in 1999 when he was head of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College.

“I thought, ‘typical,’ that he hasn’t learned a thing all these years after everything we put him through — and we put him through a lot," Aleandri said.

The women, who worked at the institute for more than a decade, accused Scelsa of creating a work environment “that was abusive and hostile to women,” according to the lawsuit filed against the Calandra Institute and the City University of New York.

CUNY paid a settlement of more than $1 million in 2005, said John B. Clarke, Jr., the women's attorney. He declined to provide any more details, saying he was unsure if the agreement was confidential.

Scelsa, who is now the president of the Italian American Museum on Mulberry Street, was recently thrust into the public eye after DNAinfo reported that the museum wanted to evict Adele Sarno, an 85-year-old woman who has lived in an apartment building owned by the museum for more than 50 years.

The museum said it planned to expand into her building. 

Aleandri and Salerno said they were not surprised by the move to evict Sarno, and described Scelsa as “arrogant” and “megalomaniacal.”

Scelsa’s behavior towards the two women included “discriminatory, abusive, degrading and intimidating conduct directed toward women,”  the employees said in the lawsuit.

“It was a nightmare,” said Aleandri, who produced a monthly television show for CUNY called “Italics” which dealt with Italian-American themes. Salerno worked as a counselor at the institute.

Scelsa and the Italian American Museum declined to comment. Queens College did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Scelsa denied the women promotions, while other employees were allowed to move up in the institute, even if they did not have as much education, seniority or experience, Aleandri and Salerno claimed in the lawsuit.

The female employees that became their supervisors “either had a close personal relationship with director Scelsa at the time of promotion or had submitted to his control and were then promoted,” the lawsuit said.

Meanwhile, Scelsa slowly stripped Aleandri and Salerno of their work duties and kept them in the dark about changes in their departments, court records show.

Aleandri was excluded from meetings and from producing segments for "Italics," while male and younger female employees were assigned to interviews and other tasks she was not allowed to perform, according to the lawsuit.

Scelsa assigned Salerno clerical work "to make sure she was well enough" to counsel students after she came back from sick leave in 1996, even though her doctor said she was medically able to return to work without restrictions, according to court documents.

And when Salerno came back from a vacation later that year, she was not assigned any work, excluded from meetings and in-house training and was not allowed to attend conferences or lectures, court documents state.

Salerno said Scelsa did not like to be challenged, especially by female staffers, so his actions against Sarno just continue the trend.

“He didn’t like it when anyone disagreed with him. But with women, it was another notch up,” Salerno said. “I mean, she stood up to him, she wasn’t leaving. That made her bad.”

Reached by phone on Monday, Sarno said she had until June 30 to move out of her apartment after the museum and her attorney reached a settlement in late April, which was first reported by the New York Times. Her lawyer, Tim Collins, said he could not comment on the agreement.

Sarno plans to move to Staten Island to live with her granddaughter or nephews because she cannot afford to stay in Little Italy, she said.

“My landlord, I consider him black-hearted,” Sarno said. “[Scelsa] wanted me out. He won. There’s nothing I could do.”