MDC settlements approach $1 million after alleged purge of employees with discrimination complaints
The Metropolitan District Commission which provides water and sewer to the Hartford region has paid nearly $1 million in settlements to a group of former employees who had filed discrimination complaints against the agency, according to a review of the municipal water authority’s board minutes.
Up until 2011, the MDC handled all the day-to-day operations of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority’s trash-to-energy facility in Hartford. CRRA switched to another contractor in 2011, costing the MDC $2.1 million.
In order to make up for the contract loss, the MDC began eliminating employees. But the termination of employees with outstanding discrimination complaints against the agency is coming back to bite them and costing rate payers.
According to court documents six of the 14 nonunion employees who were terminated in 2011 had previously filed discrimination complaints against the MDC.
Since the 2011 layoffs, five of those six employees have filed suit and the MDC has settled four of them and rehired one employee in 2014.
John Mirtle, assistant district council for the MDC, says that although they cannot comment on the settlements themselves any allegation that the employees were targeted because of their discrimination complaints is “false.”
“The MDC denies any liability regarding those claims,” Mirtle said.
So far the MDC has paid out $630,000 and credited one claimant with an extra six years of employment and pay raises so she could receive a pension.
Large portions of the settlements were covered by the agency’s insurer, although the MDC still had to pay the remaining portions out of pocket.
The board of the MDC, chaired by former Democratic Senate Majority Leader William A. DiBella, decided the settlements following executive sessions during regular board meetings. The settlements included confidentiality agreements, according to the board meeting minutes.
Five of the plaintiffs – Rick Gomez, Sharon Dixon, Lebert Thomas, Kathleen Drake, and Deborah Smith – claimed they were terminated due to racial discrimination and one employee – Donna Szestakow – alleged discrimination on the basis of her disability.
One other employee, Douglas Kerr, is mentioned in Gomez’s suit but no further information could be found regarding his termination.
This is not the first time the quasi-public agency has been hit with accusations of discrimination. The MDC lost a multi-million dollar lawsuit by former employee Sharon Harper in 2002.
According to court documents, Rick Gomez, former Affirmative Action/Diversity Officer for the MDC, had filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in 2010 after a coworker was instructed to take Gomez’s lap-top and “wrestled” the computer out of his hands.
Both Gomez and his coworker were suspended for the incident, but Gomez claimed that he was being systematically denied a promotion and filed an internal complaint with the MDC alleging hostile treatment by his direct supervisor.
After deciding to pursue his claim in court instead of through the CHRO, Gomez was terminated.
Gomez made an effort to apply for a different position in the MDC but upon arriving for the interview he was met with MDC police officers who pat him down for weapons. Officials claimed the pat down was in response to the 2010 shooting at Manchester Distributors, according to court documents.
Gomez – who holds a pistol permit – was the only former employee interviewing for the position and was therefore the only one subjected to the enhanced security screening and was not hired for the position.
After pursuing his discrimination claim in court, the MDC eventually settled the claim in 2014 with a $220,000 payout. The MDC had to pay $25,000 out of pocket, while their insurance company paid the remaining $195,000, according to board meeting minutes available online.
Lebert Thomas was also terminated in 2011 and had a history of claiming racial discrimination at the MDC and filing suit. Thomas settled a racial discrimination case with the MDC in 1990.
He also testified in the Sharon Harper suit, after which he claimed the race-based harassment began again. Thomas filed another discrimination claim, which was dismissed by the court in 2005.
Thomas was one of the employees terminated in 2011. In 2016 he was awarded $350,000 by the MDC according to board meeting minutes.
Thomas, along with Deborah Smith, had both testified in support of Rick Gomez during his initial fact-finding hearing with the CHRO in July of 2011.
Smith, who also had an outstanding claim with the CHRO, was then terminated in October of 2011. She subsequently filed suit and MDC board decided to settled with her for $60,000 during their board meeting in September of 2016.
Donna Szestakow was also one of those terminated in 2011 following the loss of the CRRA contract. Szestakow, an employee at the agency since 1992, but began to have issues with the agency in 2007 and eventually made a claim with CHRO.
In March of 2017, in an effort to settle the claim, the board of the MDC credited Szestakow with 6 years of service so that she would receive the pension normally reserved for employees who retire after 25 years.
They also calculated the salary she would have received were she not terminated in 2011 putting her final salary over $100,000 and increasing her base pay for the purpose of calculating her pension.
Under the agreement, Szestakow has to pay back into the pension plan for the credited 6 years. The details of the change were documented during the agency’s board meeting in March.
Kathleen Drake was eventually given her job back in 2014 with a salary of $56,000. The claim by Sharon Dixon appears to be ongoing in the court system.
Deputy CEO at the time, Scott Jellison, along with manager of labor relations Robert Zaik, and interim director of human resources Erin Ryan, were all named in the various lawsuits as deciding who should be terminated in 2011.
Jellison has since been made CEO of the agency, earning $300,000 per year. Erin Ryan went on to become Director of Human Resources. Robert Zaik eventually took over the role of Director of Human Resources in April of 2017.