Bay Area air-quality agency a discriminatory ‘old boys club’ hostile to minorities: lawsuit

Racism, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ harassment pervade the public agency in charge of pollution control in the Bay Area, according to a pair of new, related lawsuits.

Two former managers accuse the Bay Area Air Quality Management District of running “a hostile and discriminatory ‘old boys club,’ where heterosexual, White men are in charge and others are denied equal opportunities and treatment.”

Terri Levels and Stephen “Rex” Sanders claim in their lawsuits that the district fired them for speaking out against workplace discrimination. Both lawsuits were filed in San Francisco County Superior Court this week by the same law firm and include many similar claims.

In response, the district stated that the lawsuits made misleading and false claims, but it did not address the specific allegations. “The Air District works to foster an inclusive culture, and we view diversity as one of our greatest strengths,” according to a statement from the district. “Once all facts are known, we fully expect to prevail in this matter and remain committed to upholding the highest standards of professionalism and fairness for all of our employees.”

In the nine Bay Area counties, the district regulates stationary sources of air pollution ranging from fireplaces to oil refineries.

According to her lawsuit, Levels worked at the district’s San Francisco office from 2007 to this April, beginning as a human resources intern and working her way up to HR officer, becoming the first Black woman to hold that position at the director level.

Her lawsuit claims that White, heterosexual executives and district officers barred her and other women of color from attending meetings directly related to their jobs. It also accused executives and officers of displaying “extreme hostility” toward her, other people of color, and LGBTQ employees, including screaming and slamming items on desks.

Furthermore, Levels claims that executives assigned her job duties to unqualified White, heterosexual men and paid the men more, and that when she complained to an executive about an officer’s racist and sexist harassment, the executive assigned the same officer to investigate her complaint, according to her lawsuit.

“The darker an individual’s complexion was,” her lawsuit claimed, “the more severe the discriminatory conduct towards them tended to be.”

Sanders, who is described as “openly LGBTQIA+” and uses they/them pronouns in their lawsuit, began working for the district in 2006 as an HR analyst, eventually rising to the position of chief administrative officer, which they held until they were fired in January of this year, according to the lawsuit. A handful of executive-level colleagues harassed and discriminated against Sanders for almost the entirety of his time at the district, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Sanders, Levels’ supervisor, claimed in their lawsuit that they were excluded from meetings and displayed extreme, hostile behavior, and that they were passed over for a promotion in favor of a less-qualified, heterosexual White man.

According to Sanders’ lawsuit, an executive involved in investigating Level’s discrimination complaint referred to a photo of Sanders’ son and another man and suggested they were “gay boyfriends.” According to Sanders’ lawsuit, that executive also made fun of a Jewish board member’s facial hair, comparing her to Hitler.

The lawsuits also detail a racist slur directed at a Black female security officer, a remark about how a female executive looked in her clothing, and a regular reference to a Latina employee as “coquettish.” According to the lawsuits, when a female employee complained about “the aggression of the white, heterosexual men in the office,” an executive told her she needed to “wear her big girl panties.”

Sanders’ letter of termination cites failure to meet performance standards, delayed policy development, dishonesty, “general management deficiencies,” disrespectful behavior, and insubordination. The reasons for Levels’ termination include improper pay authorizations, a “abysmal completion rate” of performance evaluations, failures that resulted in unbudgeted personnel expenditures, filling positions without authorization, and poor judgment.

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