For a couple of decades, Al Strianese was a top amateur bowler in Buffalo, and he even joined the pro circuit for a spell before settling into full-time work at South Transit Lanes in Lockport.
When he wasn’t bowling, he was working at the bowling alley, eventually becoming the pro shop manager.
“People at South Transit loved him,” said John Masiello of Kenmore, a teammate of his on a title-winning bowling team in 1999. “He was friendly, and he loved the game.”
But the Niagara County man’s life turned upside down in 2011 as his vision deteriorated to the point he was diagnosed as legally blind.
To make matters worse, the 60-year-old Sanborn resident no longer had health insurance because the bowling alley stopped offering it, said Rafael O. Gomez, his attorney.
In September 2011, he took a medical leave from the business where he had worked since 1992.
But he caught a break on Nov. 12, 2011. Strianese was among 24 people to receive a free cataract surgery that day from Dr. Kenneth Anthone in Amherst as part of his “Eyes on America” program for the uninsured.
The surgery restored vision in his left eye – but not his right eye – and his physician cleared him to return to work Dec. 5, 2011, without restrictions.
But South Transit Lanes refused to take him back, according to a lawsuit Strianese has filed in State Supreme Court. The business said other employees were covering his position, including new workers hired after he took his medical leave, according to his lawsuit.
The business laid him off until the start of the next bowling season in August 2012, according to the lawsuit. He was told to collect unemployment benefits until then.
Several months into receiving jobless benefits, according to his lawsuit, the bowling center’s manager then told him that he needed to return his keys because negotiations were underway to sell South Transit Lanes and his employment status remained unknown.
In May 2012, an asset purchase agreement was reached with the prospective new owners, and the sale was completed the following August.
On May 20, 2012, Strianese filed a discrimination complaint against South Transit Lanes with the state Division of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
About six months later, the commission found that South Transit Lanes had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by not recalling him to work because of his disability.
Strianese filed his lawsuit last April in State Supreme Court in Buffalo against the former South Transit Lanes, its chief executive officer and its manager, along with the bowling center’s new owners who operate the business as Brad Angelo Lanes at the same location, 6280 South Transit Road, Lockport.
He wants his back pay at a rate of $538 a week, along with $450,000 in general and compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
In his lawsuit, Strianese says South Transit Lanes did not allow him to return to work and that the new owners never asked him to come back. He says their failure to call him back from layoff violated the state Human Rights Law and the ADA.
The suit also says their refusal to call him back was in retaliation for his filing the discrimination charge with the state human rights agency and the EEOC.
In his lawsuit, Strianese disputed the business’ explanation for not calling him back.
His lawsuit called it a pretext for the real reason for the layoff: his vision problems and disability.
His unemployment benefits ran out at the end of 2012. Strianese started a new job last year at Vape Wright, an electronic cigarette store in Lockport, thanks to one of the friends he made during his years in bowling.
The defendants denied his allegations and asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
The business’ new owners contend that part of the asset purchase agreement required the previous owners to disclose any lawsuits or other proceedings. The previous owners failed to do so, they said. They say responsibility for Strianese’s lawsuit rests with the previous ownership.
Also, the new owners denied their business is a successor to South Transit Lanes.
Strianese’s lawyer disagreed with those contentions.
“The new owners knew or should have known about the claim,” Gomez said. “It was essentially the same business, with the same employees,” he added.
John Masiello, a brother of former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello who grew up with Strianese on Buffalo’s West Side, recalled how Strianese’s vision problem affected him. “Al struggled big time,” Masiello said.
But after the successful eye surgery, Strianese no longer needed to wear his glasses, which Masiello said had lenses as thick as a Coca-Cola bottle: “To see him without glasses is definitely a big change.”
Masiello recalled Strianese’s bowling talent at bowling centers in Buffalo, the Tonawandas and Lockport from the late 1970s through the ’90s.
“Al was one of the best in the late ’70s,” he said.
In 1981, Strianese helped lead the Roc-Mar Five to the City Tournament five-man scratch title at the Roc-Mar Bowling Center.
The following year, he won the Tonawandas Bowling Association singles title, with a 706 three-game score.
In 1999, he and John Masiello were members of the Mayor’s Brother’s Five that won the men’s team title in the Greater Buffalo Tournament at Kenmore Lanes.
In February 2003, he was part of a five-man team at South Transit Lanes that set a Lockport Bowling Association record, with a combined score of 3,700.