Posted on November 20, 2019 by Sustainable Food News

Top organic certifier faces federal lawsuit from ‘fired’ founder

Longtime executive director Leslie Zuck accuses PCO of age discrimination

The founder and longtime executive director of Pennsylvania Certified Organic Inc. (PCO), Leslie Zuck, filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court accusing the organic certification agency of age discrimination.

Zuck filed the lawsuit in Pennsylvania Middle District Court (Case #: 4:19-cv-0198) under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), stating that Spring Mills, Pa.-based PCO’s “unlawful employment practices caused [Zuck] to suffer damages including but not limited to lost income, lost benefits, emotional distress, and mental anguish.”

In her complaint, Zuck, who had been PCO executive director since 1997, alleges that in July 2018 PCO board president, Luke Howard, “pressured” her to retire.

“When asked why, the president responded that it was not about plaintiff’s job performance but, ‘the board is ready to move on to the next generation of leadership,'” the lawsuit states, quoting Howard, who operates Homestead Farms Inc., an organic farming operation in Millington, Md.

On Sept. 5, 2018, Zuck “was fired for alleged unsatisfactory job performance,” the lawsuit states. “Prior to her termination, Leslie Zuck had not agreed to retire.”

Zuck, 61, was then replaced by interim co-executive directors – PCO’s certification director, Kyla Smith, and PCO’s director of operations, Diana Underwood – “who are both in their 30s and substantially younger” than Zuck, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit contends that the “defendant’s stated reason for termination was a pretext for discrimination.”

In February, Zuck had filed charges against PCO with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On Aug. 27, the EEOC issued to Zuck a Right to Sue letter.

Zuck is seeking judgement against PCO for compensatory damages, plus costs of the lawsuit, reimbursement of back pay with interest, front pay, attorneys’ fees, and other relief the court may deem appropriate.

PCO certifies 1,576 operations according to the USDA National Organic Program’s Organic Integrity Database.

Zuck, who is currently general manager at EcoCert ICO, another organic certification agency based in Plainfield, Ind., is a founding member and past president of the Accredited Certifiers Association and a former board member of the Organic Trade Association and a current board member of IFOAM North America. She also serves as technical advisor on the Penn State Organic Advisory Board.

For more than 30 years, Zuck has owned and operated Common Ground Organic Farm, a 120-acre organic farm in Pennsylvania’s Appalachian mountains, where she cares for organic dairy heifers and retired draft horses. She also grows and markets organic produce, heirloom vegetables and pollinator-friendly plants.

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