A former Chautauqua County assistant district attorney claims she was fired after requesting a leave of absence to care for a sick relative.
A federal lawsuit on behalf of Rachel Mitchell was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. The suit, which names Chautauqua County and the District Attorney’s Office as defendants, was first reported by WIVB-TV on Wednesday.
Mitchell was hired as an assistant district attorney in March 2021. In late October of that year, she met with another attorney in the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office about a relative who had become ill and asked how she could obtain time off through Family Medical Leave.
Under the Family Medical Leave Act, employees can take unpaid time off from work for specified family and medical reasons.
In her suit, Mitchell said she sent an email to District Attorney Jason Schmidt on Nov. 19, 2021, “advising that she needed to speak with him as soon as possible with regard to her request for leave.”
By Nov. 22, Mitchell spoke with a county insurance administrator, advising him that she was moving forward with her requested FMLA leave. That afternoon, Mitchell claims she began receiving inquiries regarding a criminal plea she handled three months prior for the DA’s office and whether she had called for authorization to enter the plea.
“(The) Plaintiff had authorization to offer the plea that was in question and produced the call logs to substantiate that,” the suit claims.
It further states, “The inquiry regarding any potential wrongdoing by Plaintiff was a pretext in an attempt for Defendants to justify any termination of Plaintiff because she requested FML leave.”
On Thursday, Schmidt referred questions on the lawsuit to a county spokesman. County attorney Patrick Slagle later released the following statement: “We are aware that a lawsuit has been filed against the county; however, the county has not yet been served any documents and we cannot comment on pending litigation at this time.”
Mitchell advised human resources on Nov. 24 that she was taking leave. She said Schmidt then sent her an email that afternoon stating that she was terminated “effective immediately for reasons which would be forthcoming.”
Her attorney, Kevin Wicka with the Tarantino Law Firm in Buffalo, noted that his client’s firing came at a time when the DA’s office was shorthanded. He said the inquires over her handling of a case out of Jamestown City Court three months prior were “pretextual” because the DA’s office didn’t want her to take time off.
“We believe the evidence will show that she didn’t do anything improper,” Wicka said of Mitchell’s handling of the plea that he claims resulted in her dismissal.
Mitchell is seeking unspecified damages, including lost income, as well as reinstatement to her position as an assistant district attorney.