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Cancer survivor pressured to quit SFSU for ‘chemo brain,’ lawsuit claims

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In a lawsuit against San Francisco State University, Angela Sposito claims her former boss pressured her to quit because the job “was going to kill her.” (Courtesy Bryan Schwartz)

A San Francisco State University employee who survived cancer through extensive chemotherapy claims she was railroaded from work for displaying symptoms of what a human resources official called “chemo brain.”

Angela Sposito says she returned to work in the Academic Senate office after undergoing aggressive treatment for a cancerous tumor in her heart in 2014, but was placed on administrative leave in August 2015 for behaving “problematically.”

University officials contacted a psychologist to test her mental abilities because they say she was disrupting the office by experiencing memory loss and paranoia — the “after-effects of chemotherapy,” according to the lawsuit. The psychologist determined Sposito was unfit for work, which she disputes.

Claiming that she faced discrimination because of her medical issues, Sposito filed a lawsuit against the university in May that is making its way through San Francisco Superior Court. Her attorney, Bryan Schwartz, claims the lawsuit is just one example of the university using bogus medical examinations to sideline unwanted employees.

“The way SF State treated Ms. Sposito is not just a single instance of egregious discrimination — but a standard University practice — when it comes to using trumped-up medical exams to try to railroad long-term, loyal employees out of their jobs,” Schwartz said in an email last week.

In turn, an attorney for the university says the claims are all nonsense.

“The university disagrees with the allegations in the complaint, which paint a false and misleading picture of plaintiff’s work environment at SFSU,” University Counsel Daniel Ojeda said in a statement. “A more complete account of the facts will show the university acted appropriately and plaintiff’s claims lack merit.”

Ann Sherman, then-vice president of human resources, allegedly made the “chemo brain” comment to two colleagues while Sposito was on leave. Sherman is now acting vice president of administration and finance.

“For a major University’s HR leader to be going around and calling my client ‘chemo brain’ — falsely impugning her abilities based upon her having survived cancer — is offensive to our most basic notions of dignity and decency,” Schwartz said.

The lawsuit says Sposito “noticed a change in how she was treated” when she returned from chemotherapy between December 2014 and June 2015.

As the Academic Senate faculty chair, her then-boss Troi Carleton allegedly worried that she would walk into the office and find Sposito dead, according to the lawsuit. Carleton allegedly pressured Sposito to quit because the job “was going to ‘kill’” her.

Sposito worried that her cancer would return as a result, according to the lawsuit.

Prior to discovering the tumor in March 2014, Sposito had an emotional support dog named Frankie with her at work for her anxiety disorder. The lawsuit claims that President Leslie Wong indicated “he did not want to be anywhere near” Frankie and wanted Sposito to avoid him at work.

The lawsuit claims the university flouted state law under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Sposito is seeking a jury trial and compensation for forced time-off.

The case will not appear before a judge until October.

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