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Diversity office at T accused of bias

Ex-worker sues, says minorities felt threatened

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 20, 2008
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The head of the MBTA's diversity office is accused of discrimination in a state lawsuit, with a former employee contending the office's chief described Latinos as "sneaky" and said that lying is part of Hispanic culture.

The suit comes amid a period of heavy turnover in the diversity office. In less than six years that Jeanne Morrison has been the MBTA's assistant general manager of diversity and civil rights, 21 people have quit, transferred, retired, or been fired from her 14-person staff, according to the MBTA. That means several positions have turned over more than once.

Turmoil has long plagued the division, even as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has struggled to overcome a history of discrimination against women and minority employees. Between 1997 and 2005, the T was forced to operate under an equal opportunity agreement that allowed the state attorney general's office to monitor hiring, promotions, and discipline in the agency.

Morrison's predecessor, Diane Wong, resigned under accusations that the office was ineffective and that she had favored her son-in-law in a bid process. At the time, then-MBTA general manager Michael Mulhern ordered a top-to-bottom reorganization of the department.

The lawsuit against Morrison and the T, filed in December by former employee Joseph M. Torres and pending in Suffolk Superior Court, is backed up by a probable-cause finding from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, an indication that the discrimination claims are credible, though not proven. The MBTA contends in court documents that Torres was fired for poor performance and denies Morrison made any of the comments attributed to her in the suit.

Through her assistant, Morrison declined to comment. Morrison, who according to state documents is African-American and Native American, issued a statement through her lawyer that cited "consistent progress" under her leadership, including her positive relationship with an MBTA minority organization and a 2007 Federal Transit Administration review that found that previous deficiencies in the office had been eliminated. She declined to address any of the accusations in the lawsuit.

Lydia Rivera, an MBTA spokeswoman, said the agency would respond only to written questions and would not answer questions related directly to the suit. Morrison, who has been in her position since November 2002, is paid $104,126.88 per year, Rivera said.

The Globe contacted four former and current employees in Morrison's office, all of whom still work for the MBTA. All declined to comment for this report. A fifth employee did not return messages left at his office. The MBTA forbids employees from speaking with the media without permission.

Joe Pesaturo, another MBTA spokesman, declined to explain the high level of turnover in the office. "I don't agree with that characterization," Pesaturo said. "People have left for various reasons."

Pesaturo e-mailed the Globe information about the office's accomplishments, including the introduction of an "inclusion" campaign backed by senior management that trains workers and emphasizes "zero tolerance" for diversity or civil rights infractions.

The percentage of minorities at the MBTA rose from 34 in 2003 to 37 percent in 2007. The percentage of women went up from 24 to 25 percent. Though the T is hiring more women and minorities, the percentage of minority promotions was lower, 29 percent, than the percentage of minority employees, 37 percent, according to MBTA statistics from July 2005 to July 2007. Pesaturo said the percentage of promotions was lower still, 19.5 percent, in 2003.

The Hispanic workforce grew from 4.1 percent in 2003 to 5.3 percent in 2008 and promotions went from zero in 2003 to 5.8 percent so far this year, according to the MBTA.

"The MBTA is pleased with the [diversity] department's performance," Pesaturo said.

Torres has a PhD in rehabilitation psychology and was the T's highest-ranking Hispanic manager during his brief tenure, according to the suit. Torres, who is 70, also claims age discrimination in his suit. He worked for the T as deputy director for government compliance programs from July 6, 2004, until he was fired Dec. 14 the same year. His salary was $78,084.24 per year, Rivera said.

Before joining the T, Torres worked 14 years doing civil rights work at the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, according to his suit. He sought the MBTA job because of its stability, benefits, and opportunity for advancement, according to the suit.

Torres is demanding back wages and unspecified damages. Through his lawyer, Monica Pastorok, he declined to comment.

According to the suit, Morrison told Torres that she "could not find qualified minority applicants" and that "minorities got me fired from my previous job." It also claims she told another employee or employees that Hispanics cannot be trusted and said "I would like to find a Latino that is not sneaky."

The suit says minorities, especially Hispanic men, felt threatened by the work environment in the office. Torres contends he was allowed less independence than Morrison's secretary, though he was a senior manager, and that he was pressured by Morrison to rewrite performance ratings of minority employees to downgrade them.

The suit does not provide any evidence for those contentions and the T denies them in court papers. The MBTA said in court papers that Morrison criticized Torres "for a variety of things including, but not limited to, his failure to take initiative and his failure to communicate with her in an appropriate manner."

In separate documents related to the state investigation, the MBTA contends "Torres met job expectations generally less than 50 percent of the time." Morrison also said to state investigators that Torres failed to complete work on time, had poor judgment, and worked irregular hours.

Torres first filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in October 2005, claiming discrimination based on age, sex, national origin, and race.

The commission denied the claims related to age and sex, but found probable cause for those pertaining to race and national origin. A probable-cause finding means "it is more likely than not that discrimination occurred," according to the commission's website. Typically, the commission finds probably cause in about one of every five such cases, according to a spot check of monthly statistics from the past year performed by the agency at the request of the Globe.

"It's really a preliminary finding. It means there's enough evidence to go forward and have an administrative hearing, which is like a trial," said Eugenia Guastaferri, acting general counsel for the commission.

But before Torres's case reached a hearing, he withdrew the complaint and then sued the T in Superior Court, where the potential for large awards is greater.

The T has been the subject of numerous outside reviews documenting a historical culture of patronage that favored white male employees. A 2002 study conducted by Weldon H. Latham, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a national authority on workplace diversity, documented widespread problems with discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The study said employees frequently referred to the diversity office as "a joke."

The agency lost two high-profile discrimination lawsuits in recent years. In 1999, a jury awarded MBTA employee Hiram Clifton $5.5 million following what he said was almost 10 years of racist taunts and pranks by supervisors at the authority. The case was settled for $2.45 million, Pesaturo said. In 2001, former administrator Roberta Edwards won a $7.6 million verdict after she complained of sexual harassment; the MBTA's board later approved a $2 mil lion settlement.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of employment discrimination complaints the agency has received. The agency said it received fewer than 260 complaints between 2010 and 2012. This story, along with some past Globe stories, also misstated the reason why a former manager won a court verdict against the MBTA. Roberta Edwards had accused the agency of retaliating against her after filing a discrimination and retaliation complaint.

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