Government & Politics

Lawsuit against Nixon and former department director alleges age, gender discrimination

A lawsuit filed against Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and former Department of Labor Director Larry Rebman is scheduled to go to trial later in September.
A lawsuit filed against Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and former Department of Labor Director Larry Rebman is scheduled to go to trial later in September. The Associated Press

On the same day back in 2013 when Gracia Backer learned she’d been fired from her job at the Missouri Department of Labor, her boss got appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon to a six-figure job as an administrative law judge in Kansas City.

Backer doesn’t think it was a coincidence.

She says she was fired because she complained to Nixon’s office that her boss — Department of Labor Director Larry Rebman — was creating a hostile work environment and discriminating against older, female employees.

So in 2014, she filed a lawsuit against Nixon and Rebman that is finally scheduled to go to trial later this month.

According to the lawsuit, Rebman ordered Backer to give undeserved, poor evaluations to certain female employees to force them to retire or justify their potential firing. He became a “monster” known among his employees for his regular “tirades, rants and accusations and threats.” He treated older female employees different than their younger male counterparts, and fired one woman with 31 years of experience with no explanation, according to the lawsuit.

And all the while, Backer says she and others tried to no avail for years to get Nixon to intervene.

Backer’s lawsuit is just the latest that alleges discrimination in the governor’s administration in recent years. Since 2014, juries have ordered the state to pay $1 million in an age discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Public Safety; $1.5 million in a disability discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Revenue; and $3 million in an age and gender discrimination lawsuit against the Missouri Veterans Commission.

Nixon, a Democrat who can’t run for re-election this year because of term limits, stated in court filings that he never received any information from Backer about Rebman, either directly or indirectly, and therefore was never aware of her allegations.

The governor denies he took any retaliatory action against Backer or that her termination was unlawful or discriminatory. It was his decision to fire her, he says in the court filings, and since she is an at-will employee he isn’t required to provide a reason.

Nixon’s spokesman declined comment, saying the administration doesn’t address pending litigation.

Rebman could not be reached for comment, but in court filings and previous public statements he has denied all of Backer’s accusations. He sought the new job in Kansas City, he has said, in order to be closer to his family.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, whose office is representing the defendants in the lawsuit, filed a summary judgment motion seeking to have the lawsuit thrown out without a trial. The judge has yet to rule on that motion, and thus a jury trial is still scheduled this month.

Backer, 66, declined an interview request from The Star. But her lawsuit says she and others tried to alert Nixon for three years about Rebman’s behavior. She says she spoke with Nixon’s wife, telling her that “things were not good” in the Department of Labor and she was “very fearful for Gov. Nixon and that he would be embarrassed by what was going on,” the lawsuit states.

“Mrs. Nixon assured Plaintiff Backer that she would relate those concerns immediately to Gov. Nixon.”

The lawsuit lays out numerous contacts with Nixon’s inner circle about Rebman by Backer and other Department of Labor employees. That includes alleged conversations with the governor’s former Chief of Staff John Watson; his former General Counsel Ted Ardini; his former director of policy Jeff Harris; his former deputy chief of staff and current commissioner of the Office of Administration Doug Nelson; and his director of personnel Nancy Johnston.

Ardini and Harris were appointed judges by Nixon earlier this year, and Watson was hired to lead the state’s retirement system. Nelson and Johnston both remain in Nixon’s administration.

In a March 2013 letter to Nelson included in the court documents, Backer detailed the issues employees were having with Rebman and provided a list of 20 other department employees ready to substantiate the allegations.

Nixon fired Backer and transferred Rebman 17 days after Nelson admits receiving the letter. In the news release announcing Rebman’s new job, Nixon praised his time leading the Department of Labor, saying he had “done a tremendous job.”

“Gov. Nixon’s appointment of Rebman to a judicial position establishes a dangerous precedent in state government for such bad conduct,” the lawsuit states, later adding: “More specifically Nixon’s actions were to reward the bad actor and kill the messenger.”

Nixon and Rebman both deny any wrongdoing in Backer’s termination. In a filing with the court, Nixon also denied Nelson is a member of his day-to-day staff, clarifying that as commissioner of the Office of Administration Nelson is a department head and therefore “a member of the governor’s cabinet.”

Nelson has worked in varying capacities for Nixon for more than two decades. His role in the administration is key to another allegation in the lawsuit: That Nixon’s staff was trying to build a wall around the governor so that he could “maintain plausible deniability of any information of Rebman’s misconduct. … Nixon could thereby claim he had no knowledge of Rebman’s conduct and no duty upon him to take corrective action.”

A similar allegation surfaced in the age discrimination lawsuit against the Missouri Veterans Commission and its director, Larry Kay.

Pat Rowe Kerr worked at the Missouri Veterans Commission, a division of the department of public safety, for five years until she was fired in 2009. She claims it was because of age and gender discrimination. Earlier this summer a jury agreed and awarded her $3 million in damages, although the state is appealing that decision.

A spokesman for the governor noted that while Nixon appoints members of the Missouri Veterans Commission, he does not appoint its director. Kay was already director when Nixon took office.

Backer’s lawsuit makes note of Kerr, saying she was subjected to a “hostile environment based upon her gender and age” despite the fact that “substantial complaints had been made to the governor’s office.”

Just like in Backer’s case, none of the complaints was ever documented, according to the lawsuit, “in an effort to maintain plausible deniability for Governor Nixon.”

Nixon and his staff deny in court filings that they were trying to shield the governor from information about Rebman.

Backer has been a fixture in Missouri politics for decades.

A New Bloomfield Democrat, she was first elected to the Missouri House in 1983 and rose to become the state’s first female majority leader in 1996. She served as director of the Division of Employment Security in Missouri’s Labor department under former Gov. Bob Holden, returning to the post in 2009 when Nixon came into office.

That same year Nixon chose Rebman, a former assistant attorney general and employment law attorney, to lead the Department of Labor.

Just one month before Backer was fired by Nixon, Rebman fired Cindy Guthrie after 31 years with the Labor department. Guthrie filed a complaint of age and gender discrimination with the Missouri Human Rights Commission, and before depositions could be completed she was suddenly reinstated in her job.

Guthrie, who is also suing Nixon and Rebman, has alleged that Backer was fired for sticking up for her and other older employees, an accusation the governor denies.

Backer’s lawsuit also includes letters from members of the Missouri Human Rights Commission in 2012 and 2013 that were sent to Nixon and his staff expressing concern about Rebman.

Cole County Judge Jon Beetum has scheduled two weeks for a jury trial to take place in Backer’s lawsuit. If it goes ahead as currently planned, the trial would begin at noon on Sept. 30.