VENICE — The city and the U.S. Justice Department have agreed to a $195,000 payout to settle a racial discrimination case involving a 30-year Black employee fired in 2016.
The money represents lost wages and compensatory damages for James Williamson, who filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim against the city in 2015.
The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe he had been subjected to discrimination and referred the case to the Justice Department after it was unable to resolve it with the city, which denies any discrimination.
“The city of Venice was recently invited to participate in a conciliation process with the U.S. Department of Justice concerning a charge of alleged discrimination in the Public Works Department dating back to 2006 in relation to an employee who separated from city employment in 2016,” Director of Human Resources Alan Bullock said via email. “The city and the DOJ have now reached a mutually acceptable settlement, which includes several proactive steps designed to ensure institutional fairness across the board moving forward.
“The city welcomes these steps since per city policy, equal opportunities are granted without regard to race, creed, color, sex, religion, age, national origin, disability, marital status, citizenship status or any other category protected by federal, state or local statute.”
Hired in 1987 as a truck driver/laborer in the Parks Division of the Public Works Department, Williamson was promoted to municipal service worker in 1990 and heavy equipment operator in 2000. At the time, he was the only Black member of the Parks Division.
According to the complaint the Justice Department filed Tuesday as part of the settlement, Williamson’s problems began in 2006, when Warren “Skip” Pettit was named parks foreman, making him Williamson’s direct supervisor.
From then until Williamson was terminated in 2016, the complaint states, Petitt exhibited “anti-Black racial animus in the workplace generally and towards Williamson in particular.”
The animus took the form of using the “N-word” in general and directed at Williamson; assigning him alone tasks usually performed by two or more people; assigning him menial tasks not performed by other heavy equipment operators; and disciplining him for conduct White employees weren’t punished for, among other things.
Williamson was reprimanded at least nine times from 2014 until he was terminated, the complaint states, while no White heavy equipment operator was disciplined between 2006 and 2016.
Under the city’s progressive discipline policy, reprimands led to more severe punishments, including three-day and five-day suspensions without pay.
Williamson successfully challenged a reprimand for not calling in when he was hospitalized for two days after a diabetic incident that caused him to be transported to the hospital from work.
The U.S. Department of Labor found that the reprimand violated the Family and Medical Leave Act.
But, according to the complaint, when Williamson and his union representative met in December 2014 with Bullock and Assistant City Manager Len Bramble to complain about discrimination, they said in a memo that they found no evidence of discrimination or harassment.
“No documented investigation of Williamson’s December 2014 internal racial discrimination complaint was ever conducted by the City,” the complaint states.
Williamson was placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP) the following November, according to the complaint, but it gave no objective requirements for him to satisfy.
“This left the determination of whether Williamson was successful to the subjective judgment of his direct supervisor Petitt,” the complaint states.
When the union representative told Bullock he planned to challenge the PIP as a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Bullock responded that Williamson would be fired, according to the complaint.
Williamson was terminated Aug. 16, 2016. His replacement was white, the complaint states.
The city’s reasons for disciplining him were “pretext for race discrimination,” the complaint alleges.
In addition to paying damages to Williamson, in the settlement the city also agrees:
• Not to engage in any act or practice that discriminates against any employee or applicant on the basis of race.
• To submit within 60 days to the United States for review and approval copies of its written anti-discrimination policies, or to draft and submit a policy if it doesn’t have one.
• After approval, to disseminate the policy to all employees and to have them sign a written acknowledgement of receipt.
• To provide mandatory training within 180 days on prohibited employment practices and the city’s anti-discrimination policies to all supervisors and managers of the Public Works Department or who make personnel decisions affecting the Public Works Department.
• To include a performance element in the criteria for the written performance evaluations for all of its supervisors and managers that requires their compliance with anti-discrimination laws and policies.
• To provide neutral employment references for Williamson.
• To put a letter in his personnel file stating that “The U.S. Department of Justice legally challenged Mr. James Williamson’s separation from City employment as well as related disciplinary actions taken against him. The Department’s legal challenge was resolved through settlement.”