First came nearly $2 million paid out by Kansas City to former assistant city prosecutors who had been laid off and claimed discrimination.
On Thursday, the city prepared for another big payout, this time $750,000 in a case involving a former water department manager.
The City Council agreed to the settlement with Mable Ramey-Moore, who also claimed discrimination after being laid off.
City officials defend the reorganizations that prompted the layoffs — but they also know they need to make some changes to prevent the need for future expensive settlements.
City Councilwoman Jan Marcason called the series of lawsuit settlements “troubling.”
“We understand it’s a problem,” said Marcason, chairwoman of the council’s finance committee, which reviews the lawsuit settlements that have taken a toll on the city budget. “We’re trying to deal with it as systematically as we can.”
Ramey-Moore, who is African-American, filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after she was let go by the city in May 2013. She was hired in 1995 and served until March 2012 as an assistant to the director in water services, with major responsibilities for business and customer support.
The water department went through a revolving door of directors beginning in 2008 and gained a reputation as one of municipal government’s most dysfunctional departments, with record numbers of water main breaks and growing complaints about poor customer service.
So in January 2012, the city tapped retired KCP&L executive Bill Downey to recommend how to bring the water department up to professional utility standards. He advised overhauling the department’s customer service operation, and Ramey-Moore was reassigned to the Public Works Department as an assistant to the director for business and support.
But at the end of her first year in public works, her position there was eliminated due to a lack of appropriate work for the position, according to a city fact sheet explaining the settlement. She was let go amid layoffs in public works and other departments as the city faced a general fund budget shortfall.
According to the city, Ramey-Moore’s dismissal was unusual in one way — she was the only high-level employee transferred from the water or aviation departments, which are funded from customer user fees, to a general fund department subject to layoffs.
And although other positions have come available, the city said, Ramey-Moore was not interviewed. She filed her complaint shortly after being let go.
The Law Department recommended the $750,000 settlement “because a jury could believe race, age, and/or gender was a contributing factor to her dismissal, in light of (her) past evaluations but subsequent transfer to a department experiencing reductions in force.” And the Law Department said that if the city lost at trial, it could be subject to very high back pay and punitive damages, plus attorney fees.
The settlement will be paid out of the water fund, not the general fund.
Her attorney, Eric Smith, said after the council vote Thursday that his client was pleased to get the matter resolved, and although it seems a large sum, it is not a windfall for her.
“From our view there were no legitimate complaints about her performance,” Smith said, adding that his client had been with the city for more than 17 years and always had excellent evaluations.
“She was a very long-term employee,” he said. “She’s now almost 62 years old and has not been able to find re-employment. It’s basically a career-ending decision that they fired her. Her lost wages and benefits if she had been able to work through retirement age were much higher than this. It’s a compromise result.”
Since July 2013, the City Council has now approved nearly $3.4 million in settlements of various discrimination complaints, including the nearly $2 million to resolve seven of eight lawsuits filed by former part-time assistant city prosecutors. They were let go during a prosecutor’s office conversion to full-time attorneys.
Those plaintiffs alleged either age, race or gender discrimination after they weren’t hired during the reorganization.
Marcason said the settlements, while costly, are often prudent because they include attorneys fees. Even when the city wins most counts at trial, if it loses on any of the discrimination or retaliation counts, the plaintiff’s attorney fees alone can be significant. In one recent case, in which the city prevailed on all but one count, those fees still came to $300,000.
But Marcason also said the city has formed a new Human Resources committee to carefully evaluate every termination to try to guard against the discrimination complaints in the first place.
City Manager Troy Schulte said he still needs to be able to make manager-level changes at times to improve city operations, and a charter change approved earlier this year by voters should make that easier.
The charter change clarifies that people reporting directly to a department director, or serving in a division manager capacity, will be considered “at-will” employees who serve at the pleasure of the city and can be let go when circumstances warrant.