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City Settles Discrimination Suit

POSTED March 8, 2011 11:29 p.m.

The City of Oakdale this week entered into a non-disclosed monetary settlement with a former public works employee to settle a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination, harassment, a hostile work environment, and retaliation. William Moffitt, who worked for the City of Oakdale from 2005 to 2006, claims he was forced to resign from his position as an equipment operator after having to tolerate racial slurs by co-workers and superiors, harassment after receiving a promotion to a higher paid position, and being threatened with a gun by a co-worker in the employee lunchroom. The final straw, according to the lawsuit, was when a group of public works employees formed a pool on how soon they could get Moffitt to leave his position.

Even though he voluntarily resigned, Moffitt clams he was “constructively discharged” by the City of Oakdale. A “constructive discharge” legally occurs when the employer’s conduct effectively forces an employee to quit.

According to court documents, Moffitt was hired by the City of Oakdale as a Maintenance Worker II in October 2005. At the time he was hired, Moffitt was the only African-American male working for the city.

Shortly after, in November 2005, Moffitt claims then-Assistant Public Works Director Mark King told a fishing story in the public works break room in which he repeated the ‘n-word’ several times in front a group of employees, including Moffitt.

In April 2006, after passing his probation period, Moffitt received a promotion, passing the standard next step of Maintenance Worker I, to the position of Equipment Operator.

Moffitt claims in the suit that co-worker Chris Robinette took exception to his evaluation and the promotion, which later led to a verbal altercation and shoving match in late April or early May of 2006. During the altercation, Robinette directed the ‘n-word’ repeatedly towards Moffitt.

Moffitt reported the incident to then-Director of Public Works John Word, who counseled Robinette and had him apologize to Moffitt.

According to Moffitt, he was told that “back in the day” the ‘n-word’ was “a common word around here.” (Robinette used the actual offensive term.)

A few days later Robinette was in the public works break room and had two guns on the table in front of him. Robinette was also holding a Glock .40 caliber semi-automatic handgun and brandished it towards Moffitt, asking, “Hey, Bill, do you want to go squirrel hunting?”

Moffitt said in the court document that he felt frightened due to the argument and the comments made by Robinette days earlier.

In the court action, Maintenance Supervisor Mark Ozbirn stated he was present during Robinette’s bringing the guns to the workplace. Ozbirn also stated he had to meet with many of the public works employees for what was deemed “The Bill Moffitt Mess.”

Robinette claimed that he personally wasn’t the one with the problem of Moffitt’s promotion, but as a union representative he had fielded several complaints from members. A review by the city showed that Moffitt was qualified and properly promoted to the position.

In October of 2006, Public Works employee Scott McHenry pulled Moffitt aside and warned him that Robinette “and some of his cohorts” had started a pool regarding what his termination date would be.

In November 2006, Moffitt quit his position with the City of Oakdale and went to work for the City of Modesto.

In September 2006, prior to leaving Oakdale’s employment, Moffitt had contacted the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and filed a complaint regarding the threats and harassment. Moffitt claimed at the time there was no official HR Department with the city for him to go to. In December 2006, Moffitt filed a second complaint with EEOC complaining he was forced to resign due to the harassment and threats including lack of action or protection by city officials.

The City of Modesto is also a party to the lawsuit. Moffitt claims that while working for Modesto, those co-workers learned of his EEOC complaints and started harassing him by changing schedules, restricting his access to areas, and warning him not to cause the same problems.

In May 2007, Moffitt was terminated from the City of Modesto amid allegations of timesheet falsification, theft of property, unauthorized persons on property, and damaging another’s property. Since he was on probation with Modesto at the time, Moffitt did not have any appeal rights.

Moffitt denied the allegations and offered explanations in the suit.

After its investigation, the EEOC ruled in favor of Moffitt, stating that he had a claim to sue the City of Oakdale. In May 2008, Moffitt filed a lawsuit for harassment and discrimination. His attorney is Steven Robinson of the Alioto Law Group in San Francisco, a known legal group for employment discrimination and harassment cases.

In court papers, the City of Modesto has consistently refuted Moffitt’s claims and refused any attempts to settle its portion of the case, stating race was not a factor and the dismissal was solely based on conduct and performance. In addition, since Moffitt was a probationary employee, there was no requirement for a hearing or cause.

In its refuting the lawsuit, attorneys for the City of Oakdale admit that the fishing story was told by King and the ‘n-word’ was used, but claim that Moffitt was only present and not the focus of the story. Additionally, the city admitted that Robinette used a variance of the n-word, but it was used in reference to his displeasure with the war in the Mideast and was saying it only as reference to a person of Middle Eastern descent due to the various desert regions. None of the slurs were directed at or referred to Moffitt.

According to filed court papers, the City of Oakdale’s reply to the guns in the break room was, “Oakdale is a town of hunters and firearms were brought into the workplace…”

The city also claims that when Moffitt resigned he did not state the reason for leaving was the harassment or discrimination, but that he was accepting a position with a better schedule in Modesto.

Attorneys for the City of Oakdale also claim that Moffitt suffered no adverse employment action, loss of wages, and it did not interfere with his employment in Modesto.

When contacted, Oakdale City Manager Steve Hallam said he could not comment on ongoing legal matters and referred questions to Lisa Aquiar, the attorney hired by the city for the matter.

Calls and messages left with her office have gone unreturned.

Steven Robinson, attorney for Moffitt, stated that details of the settlement were confidential due to a non-disclosure agreement and could not make any statements.

The City of Oakdale Employee Handbook currently does not list any prohibition or address weapons in the workplace. Hallam stated a policy on weapons and workplace violence has been developed and is pending approval.

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