Upper East Side school sued by former employee for ‘unsanitary’ facility, child neglect, abusive work environment

A former employee of an Upper East Side school for students with brain injuries is suing the nonprofit institution for gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and creating a hostile and abusive work environment.

Katelyn Newman, a former marketing and public relations employee for iBRAIN, an independent educational organization, worked for the Manhattan campus from last August through December, when she resigned. In a lawsuit filed Jan. 16, Newman called out the school for its “unsanitary” conditions — and labeled her former boss, Patrick Donahue, as “vulgar, disgusting, impulsive, and money-hungry.”

In the suit, the former employee further alleges that iBRAIN’s new facility on 403 East 91st St. was “extremely filthy and unsanitary” during her time there, and that “floors were generally left unwashed [with] spiders and bugs everywhere.”

“The cockroaches were so prevalent that they were sometimes nested in students’ wheelchairs,” Newman’s complaint alleged. There were Doritos bags stuffed in pipes to prevent leakage, and “disgusting and gross-smelling residue started falling from the ceiling in therapist’s office area.”

At one point, Newman claimed that a rat’s carcass was in the facility for an “extended time period” before being removed.

She also pointed to the lack of working air conditioner in the former iBRAIN location on East 94th Street during the summer — alleging that, combined with the heat, “some of the children started having seizures more frequently than usual.”

To top it all off, Newman says Donahue and other higher-ups subjected her “and other women working at iBRAIN to sexual harassment by making sexually suggestive and inappropriate remarks, commenting on aspects of their physical presence and dress.”

amNewYork Metro reached out to Donohue, Pedro and the iBRAIN School for comment. Donohue responded in an email: “Our attorneys will respond, aggressively, in court.”

Cash rich, material poor?

Despite a “severe lack of equipment, including wheelchairs” and “a lack of basic materials necessary to effectively address student goals,” Newman said this contradicted what she was told: that the New York State Department of Education paid between $100,000 to $350,000 per student for tuition at iBRAIN, depending on the severity of the student’s disability.

The nonprofit — which currently has two active campuses: one in Yorkville, Manhattan and another in Sunset Park, Brooklyn — also received $1 million from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program in 2020, and around $800,000 in a second infusion of funds in 2021, according to the suit.

The New York State Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Off to a bad start

It wasn’t long before Newman says she noticed that other young women, including herself, were being treated in a hostile, abusive, and toxic manner by iBRAIN’s founder, Donohue.

After she resigned, Newman alleges she began receiving dozens of messages and phone calls from staff members and parents about the way they were negatively treated at iBRAIN.

According to the complaint, Newman also worried for her safety and for the students’ safety when she heard from other staff and teachers iBRAIN employees were not being properly vetted with background checks.

Katelyn Newman and an iBRAIN student.Photo courtesy of Katelyn Newman

Furthermore, the suit alleges that one staff member who worked in upper management, Dr. Alim Shariff — whose real name is Rodney Robinson — claimed that he was in the military, graduated from Harvard, and was a behavioral psychologist. Hired without a background check, an investigation eventually found the “doctor’s” credentials to be “phony.” Dr. Alim Shariff “turned out to be a complete fraud,” Newman said.

Robinson was charged and arrested in 2021 for fraudulently posing as a medical professional, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Robinson was charged with “forgery and false use of a passport, false statements, and aggravated identity theft in connection with his years-long effort to fraudulently pose as a medical professional and Naval Reserve Officer.”

Born out of legal battles

Donohue, an attorney, founded the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to cure brain injury. It was named after his daughter who had been violently and detrimentally abused by a hired caretaker.

He founded iHOPE in 2013 and was soon entangled in legal battles with the school and the NYC Department of Education, including a whistleblower complaint from an iHOPE employee alleging that Donohue “was simultaneously running a law firm to which iHOPE paid $165,000 per year as part of a scheme to funnel federal and state education funds to Donohue personally.”

After leaving iHOPE, Donohue founded iBRAIN in 2018. iBRAIN left its 311 East 94th St. location after signing a 10-year contract for a new site just down the street on 403 East 91st St. The former iBRAIN on East 94th St. is currently closed and undergoing asbestos abatement.

In what was described as an “unusual set of facts,” an appeal filed in 2020 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit eyed the circumstances surrounding iBRAIN. Following an exodus from iHOPE, former parents followed Donohue and enrolled their children in iBRAIN, without the city’s consent, the appeal alleges.

Shortly after, some of these parents claimed that “they are entitled to an order requiring the City to pay for the educational services at iBRAIN on a pendency basis,” which leans on the Disabilities Education Act provision preventing disruptions to a child’s current education.

But who represented all the plaintiffs? Donohue and his law firm, the Yorkville-based Brain Injury Rights Group. According to the appeal, there were around 23 other cases making similar charges demanding public funding from the city for iBRAIN’s tuition and related services.

The former iBRAIN location at 311 East 94th Street, New York.Photo by Sarah Belle Lin
The current iBRAIN location occupies the third and fourth floors of 403 East 91st Street, New York.Photo by Sarah Belle Lin

Newman also claims that Donohue and his wife had formed a transportation company and were billing the state’s Education Department for “additional transportation charges, including charges for ‘field trips’ and ‘additional mileage’ for children.”

The lawsuit further alleges that other iBRAIN employees told Newman they were being forced by school management to “submit falsified reports on the supposed “progress” made by children/students and that if the notes were not positive enough, they were told to “rewrite” them since these “progress reports” were part of the “research” that was supposedly being conducted at iBRAIN.”

The suit then lists Dr. Victor Pedro, the school’s chief innovations officer, as a fraud. Pedro was “not a neurologist or neuroscientist as he represented himself to be,” Newman alleges. The former employee believes that Pedro’s techniques put the school’s students at risk and that he “used children as human guinea pigs for his experiments.” 

Mind over matter?

Donohue met Victor Pedro, who currently serves as iBRAIN’s chief innovation officer, at a conference. Pedro started treating Donohue’s daughter, Sarah Jane, who then had monumental shifts in her progress, according to Donohue. Pedro was “appointed to the Medical Advisory Board of the Sarah Jane Brain Project in 2010 after successfully treating Sarah Jane Donohue,” according to Pedro’s website.

Pedro has inspired much confusion and uncertainty around his work in brain disorder treatment. Pedro pioneered what he calls Cortical Integrative Therapy — a treatment he’s even used on singer Paula Abdul, who claims Pedro’s work treated her chronic pain and reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. He received multiple grants from the state of Rhode Island to fund his work.

All the while, there are reports of dozens of doctors crying foul, and previous state funding for his work was pulled in 2019. Pedro studied dentistry at Boston University before pursuing the field of chiropractic neurology, according to his resume. On it, he wrote that he “pioneered a revolutionary diagnostic and treatment program based on Cortical Integrative Therapy (CIT) for the treatment of acquired brain injury and brain-based disorders.”

The federal government’s Department of Human and Health Services denied Pedro’s request for Medicaid to cover CIT, and claimed the treatment was not FDA-approved nor scientifically proven, according to Newman’s suit, which also names Pedro as one of the higher-ups who made women at iBRAIN feel uncomfortable.

Pedro “made it clear to [female employees] in various ways that he would like to have a personal and sexual relationship with them,” according to Newman’s suit.

As iBRAIN settles into its new digs — and with both Pedro and Donahue still at the helm — Newman said she remains more worried about the school’s current students than about any legal retaliation.

“Someone had to speak up,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep knowing how poorly this was all ran. I loved those children and want the best for them.”