Uh-oh: PA anti-discrimination agency slapped with discrimination charge
A former employee with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has sued the watchdog agency for discrimination and for a hostile work environment, saying he was retaliated against for trying to improve workplace culture after a string of office scandals.
Jelani Cooper, an assistant chief counsel with the commission from 2014 to 2019, filed a federal racial discrimination lawsuit and whistleblower complaint in Pennsylvania’s central district. He alleges he was “the subject of continuous race discrimination” which hampered his job performance and eventually led to his dismissal.
In 2018, Cooper received the agency’s “Legal Star” award, for an attorney “who routinely goes the extra mile,” and the “Education and Outreach” award for having a “profound impact on the lives of citizens of the commonwealth.”
A former employee, who did not want to be named, said they witnessed some of this harassing behavior. Another employee said this dynamic was generally present in the office.
Cooper said he had to get counseling to deal with the stress and harassment. In a sworn statement, another attorney and Cooper’s supervisor, Geoff Biringer, said that special assistant to the executive director Tammy McElfresh told him,“If [Cooper] is speaking to Black people about filing a complaint, we will fire him.”
In recent years, it has been called to respond and investigate the case of five Black women asked to leave a golf course in York County, and an uptick in KKK activity around the commonwealth.
In 2016, based on some of the above incidents, Cooper filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws pertaining to the workplace. As a part of the mediation process that followed, the PHRC agreed to form a diversity committee.
Repeated efforts to start that committee stalled, including under Edwards’ successor as executive director, Chad Lassiter, who is Black. Per that agreement, the commission did vote to form a diversity committee but failed to take further steps to establish one, according to Cooper.
From 2017 through 2019, Cooper said he reached out to various commissioners and Lassiter, repeatedly requesting help in setting up the committee. In February 2019, Cooper organized a meeting with three commissioners and Lassiter, in order to discuss details of establishing the committee. That meeting was brief and ended after Lassiter said, “We have more important things to do, maybe in 2024 or something,” according to the complaint.
A week later, Cooper told Lassiter he was in breach of the EEOC settlement. He also reached out to some of the commissioners and several community members, asking them to help him start a committee and saying that it had been “thwarted.”
In response, he received an email from Lassiter, which is quoted in the complaint.
“In 8 months we have advanced the Commission and you Jelani will not tear that down because of your issues and agenda,” Lassiter said. “You are not more powerful than God.”
Soon after, Cooper emailed the Department of Justice and EEOC to complain that the terms of the settlement were being violated. Around April 1, Cooper filed a new complaint with the EEOC, this time alleging retaliation. That complaint is still pending.
He was let go on April 9, 2019.
Cooper’s complaint comes as the agency continues to deal with the ripple effects of other complaints and settlements.
When Edwards was hired as executive director, internal candidate Kevin “Kaaba” Brunson, a Black man, sued in 2015 for being passed over to lead the commission. A jury awarded him nearly $260,000 for his claims of racial discrimination and attorneys fees.
In 2016, Governor Tom Wolf removed commission chair Gerald Robinson amid allegations he used racial slurs at the office and didn’t take civil rights work seriously.
Edwards herself left in 2018 and sued the agency, alleging she was discriminated against for being white, a woman, and a lesbian — and for being told she hired too many white people. Litigation is ongoing.
We've seen this kind of irony at the federal level, too, let's not forget.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, ostensibly created in part to prevent discrimination in the financial services realm, was sued in late 2018 for discrimination following years of allegations of the practice running rampant at the agency:
The CFPB and its Acting Director are facing a proposed class action lawsuit alleging discrimination against minority and female workers based on allegations of lesser pay and fewer promotions than their white male counterparts.
The Complaint, filed on September 13, 2018, in the D.C. District Court, alleges violations of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1963 Equal Pay Act. The lawsuit is seeking punitive damages and compensation for lost pay and benefits for minorities and women who have worked as consumer response specialists at the CFPB.
The plaintiffs, Ms. Carzanna Jones and Mr. Heynard Paz-Chow, are seeking certification to join in the case a class of racial minority and female employees, both past and present, working in the consumer response division, whom the plaintiffs allege were subjected to the same discrimination and retaliation while working for the CFPB. Ms. Jones is a current employee of the CFPB, and her allegations cover the length of her career at the bureau dating back to 2012. Mr. Paz-Chow is a former employee of the bureau from 2011-2014, and his allegations occurred under the leadership of former CFPB Director Richard Cordray.
The pending lawsuit alleges that through an agency-wide pattern and practice of discrimination and retaliation, the CFPB has sought to disparately impact racial minority and female workers despite the continued objections of CFPB employees. Specifically, it is alleged that the CFPB instituted discriminatory policies and procedures in its training, assigning, evaluating, and compensation of minority and female employees. The Complaint also details specific instances of discrimination and retaliation alleged to have been suffered by the individual named plaintiffs including:
- Denial of training and promotion opportunities
- Unequal assignment of investigations leading to disproportionate case closings which impact employee evaluations
- Denial of transfer requests
- Pay disparitiesFailure to abide by the requirements of the ADA and FMLA
- Retaliatory actions after employees complained about inequalities
The Complaint cites to a Congressional Investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives initiated in 2014 and an Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) report from 2015. Both authorities found significant issues with widespread disparities negatively impacting racial minority and female employees with regard to performance ratings, pay, promotion and related areas. During a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, a CFPB attorney testified that the white males in authority at the bureau gave themselves the best performance evaluations to garner better raises and bonuses.