Just days before jury selection was set to begin in a lawsuit accusing Gov. Jay Nixon of age and gender discrimination, a Cole County judge postponed the trial until after the governor leaves office.
Meanwhile, an open-records request by The Star has turned up two additional discrimination lawsuits against executive branch agencies — including one that names Nixon specifically as a defendant.
Jury selection was scheduled to begin Friday in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by Gracia Backer, who says she was fired from her job in the Missouri Department of Labor because she complained to Nixon’s office that her boss — former Department of Labor Director Larry Rebman — was creating a hostile work environment and discriminating against older female employees.
The trial was postponed on Monday until late February. The judge said the trial needed more time than what was available in October.
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“I’m disappointed in the delay,” Backer said. “Our case is solid. I’ve waited 3 1/2 years, so three more months won’t make any difference.”
While that case continues to drag on, two other lawsuits have come to light that make similar allegations of discrimination against Nixon’s administration.
The first was filed last year by a former officer with the Missouri Capitol Police Department and investigator with the Department of Social Services. She says she was fired in retaliation for a gender discrimination lawsuit she filed and accuses Nixon of condoning “retaliation and discrimination throughout the executive branch.”
The second lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in November against Rebman and the state Department of Labor. It involves a female employee who says she was retaliated against after complaining about being repeatedly passed over for promotions by younger and less experienced workers.
Adding to the headaches for Nixon, a Democrat who can’t run for re-election this year because of term limits, is the fact that a jury’s decision last year in another discrimination case could impact his decision on who should fill an open judicial seat in St. Louis.
Brian May, a longtime Nixon aide currently serving as the director of the governor’s eastern Missouri office, is among three finalists for a seat on the 21st Circuit Court in St. Louis. Nixon will decide which of the three finalists gets the job.
The state has appealed that decision.
A spokesman for Nixon declined to comment.
Backer, 66, is a veteran of Missouri politics, having served as a Democrat in the Missouri House for two decades. She says she and other employees tried for three years to get Nixon to intervene and put a stop to Rebman’s behavior, which she says included ordering her to give undeserved, poor evaluations to certain female employees to force them to retire or justify their potential firing.
Backer wrote a letter to one of Nixon’s longtime advisers in 2013 detailing the issues employees were having with Rebman. The letter included a list of 20 other department employees ready to substantiate the allegations. Nixon fired Backer two weeks after she sent the letter, and on the same day he transferred Rebman to a six-figure job as an administrative law judge in Kansas City.
In the two newly discovered cases:
Stacy Minze filed a discrimination lawsuit against Nixon last year. She says she lost her job with the Department of Social Services because of a previous gender discrimination lawsuit she filed while working as an officer in the Missouri Capitol Police Department.
Minze filed her original lawsuit claiming gender discrimination against the Capitol police in 2009 over incidents that predated Nixon’s time as governor. She later got a job as an investigator with the Department of Social Services. When she got a new supervisor, however, he began making reference to her lawsuit and how she should consider dropping it.
A jury sided with her in 2012, but an appeals court ordered a new trial, which she lost. She has since appealed that decision.
While that lawsuit was pending, Minze says her supervisor, “with the full sanction and approval of the Nixon administration, created a hostile and offensive work environment.” She was fired in 2013 and was told the reason was that she had sent personal emails from her work computer in 2011.
Minze believes her dismissal was in retaliation for her discrimination lawsuit, saying it is the de facto policy of the Nixon administration “to retaliate against and silence … whistle-blowers in violation of” the Missouri Human Rights Act.
The attorney general’s office, which is representing Nixon in the lawsuit, asked the judge to dismiss the charges against Nixon, arguing that “there is nothing in (Minze’s) petition to indicate any personal involvement by the governor in the alleged discrimination by the” Department of Social Services.
The judge denied that motion, and Nixon remains a defendant in the lawsuit.
In a discrimination lawsuit scheduled to go to trial in November, Rita Terpstra says she was repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of younger and less experienced employees in the Department of Labor.
The lawsuit says her supervisors discussed her age and proximity to retirement while considering her for a promotion that was eventually given to someone who was 28 years old and had no supervisory experience. Terpstra, 60, was later given a temporary promotion while another supervisor was on leave. But she lost that position and was replaced by a younger employee shortly after she formally filed an age discrimination complaint.
“The only reasons for such removal from the temporary position ... was in retaliation for (Terpstra) pursuing her claim with the (Missouri Commission on Human Rights) and (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), and the defendants’ desire to have a younger person,” the lawsuit states.
Terpstra’s lawsuit makes no mention of Nixon. The Department of Labor declined to comment when contacted by The Star.
Jury selection in Terpstra’s lawsuit is scheduled to begin Nov. 7.
The Star’s Steve Kraske contributed to this report.