No Lessons Learned – NJ Transit Settles Second Discrimination Suit Against Same Plaintiff

Back in 2014, Pia Wilson and seven of her colleagues at New Jersey Transit filed a Complaint against their employer and several white upper-level managers. They alleged discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on race. That case was settled in June of 2016 for $3.65 million dollars. Despite the significant settlement paid by NJ Transit, the same employees named in the first claim persisted in pursuing retaliatory and discriminatory acts in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination against Ms. Wilson, as well as against a supervisor who had provided deposition testimony in support of the initial claim. The two were each compelled to file additional lawsuits against their employer in January of 2017, which NJ Transit just settled for an additional $3.2 million.

The Original Claim

The discriminatory actions that spurred Ms. Wilson and other African American employees of NJ Transit to file their original claim were described as “far reaching and documented.” It included a pattern of unfair pay, job assignments, discipline, promotion practices, working conditions, and “regular egregious severe and pervasive harassment.” In addition, the plaintiffs alleged a pattern and practice of retaliation against those who complained about discrimination and harassment. They claimed that both the authority’s EEO and Human Resources departments and their outside counsel participated, encouraged, aided, and abetted the wrongdoing.

The details of Ms. Wilson’s claim pointed to an initial internal complaint she’d filed in 2011 after having worked for NJ Transit for over twenty years. In that complaint she alleged race and gender discrimination in her department’s disparate salaries. She was falsely told that there was nothing that could be done about it and that the pay differential between white and African American employees was based on longevity. The matter was closed. Months later she complained to the EEO Officer about ongoing harassment she was suffering at the hands of a white supervisor and supported her claim with a description of discrimination she had experienced, as well as the experiences of African American employees throughout the organization.

With no action taken in response to her complaint, Ms. Wilson and seven others filed suit seeking redress for “rampant racial discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation.” After fighting the claims, NJ Transit signed a $3.65 million settlement agreement on May 23, 2016.

Jose Rivera’s Witness Testimony Leads to Retaliation

At the time that the African American employees filed their claim against their employer, Jose Rivera was employed by the authority as a Senior Director in the department where Ms. Wilson worked. He reported directly to James Schworn, one of the defendants named in the original discrimination claim and was called to provide deposition testimony. Mr. Rivera filed a claim of discrimination and retaliation under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination indication that his work life changed immediately following his initial meeting with outside counsel representing the authority.

Mr. Rivera’s claim describes how Mr. Schworn approached him and questioned him about the responses he had provided to the company’s attorneys. He cites his reputation being maligned and being denied promotional opportunities within the organization. He claimed that his requests for much-needed staffing assistance were rejected, that his job responsibilities were reduced in a way that diminished his profile within the organization, and that his department’s productivity was falsely attacked. Additionally, he was denied the opportunity to apply for a promotion for which he had previously been told he was the obvious choice.

According to Mr. Rivera, the pressure not to disclose the discriminatory treatment that he had observed was not limited to Mr. Schworn, but was also applied by the transit authority’s outside counsel. In response he prepared a memorandum describing the retaliation for NJT’s Human Resources and EEO offices, and also indicated that he had been subjected to racial/national origin discrimination with regards to his compensation. No effective remedial steps were taken by the organization. It was in light of this and the behavior continuing that he filed suit against the organization and Mr. Schworn, accusing them of having violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

The Second Claim

Following execution of the settlement agreement in May of 2016, Ms. Wilson continued to be subjected to retaliation and a hostile work environment. Though she was promised that she would no longer have contact with the offending supervisor, he and his work friends continued their discriminatory and retaliatory behaviors towards her. She was ostracized by white co-workers and became the subject of an “active campaign of on-going harassment, hostility, and retaliation.”

She filed a second discrimination lawsuit citing numerous examples of how her workload and working conditions were drastically and punitively changed and of the authority having ignored her requests for assistance. She described meetings where she was ignored and openly disrespected and the undermining and usurpation of her authority. She also indicated that the main perpetrator of the discrimination against her received a promotion and other career-related perks that he bragged to her about, indicating that despite his racist behavior, he was “untouchable.”

Before filing her second claim, Ms. Wilson had again attempted to pursue remediation through her employer’s EEO office but was told that it would take up to a year to investigate due to lack of resources. By the time she filed in 2017 there had been no formal interview and her complaints had not been investigated. Testimony provided during her first lawsuit revealed that the person at the organization who was responsible for investigating employee complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation had a policy of not investigating complaints that were more than a year old despite the NJLAD’s two-year statute of limitations. It was also revealed that the same individual had immediately investigated claims that had been lodged by a white employee against Ms. Wilson.

Second Settlement Reached

In response to Ms. Wilson’s second claim and the claim filed by Mr. Rivera, NJ Transit agreed to settle again, this time for a total of $3.2 million. Though Ms. Wilson left the organization in early 2018, indicating that the retaliation was making her sick, Mr. Rivera continues to work for NJ Transit. Both expressed hopes that the system’s pattern of discrimination and harassment would end and that more oversight would be provided on behalf of employees.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is extremely comprehensive and provides robust protections against retaliation, as well as significant consequences for those who violate it. If you have been the victim of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation on the job based on being a member of a protected class, we can help. Contact us today to set up a time to discuss your situation.

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