A federal jury has ordered King County to pay $900,252 to a Black senior Metro transit worker who said he was retaliated against after alleging racial discrimination in the agency’s hiring and promotional processes.
The verdict by a jury in U.S. District Court in Seattle on June 24 came after a seven-day jury trial before U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly, where the panel rejected Claude Brown’s allegations of discrimination, but concluded his bosses retaliated against him after he went to the King County Office of Civil Rights alleging he was passed up for promotion and removed from a training position because he is Black.
Brown, now 71 and still working as a transit operator, had been hired by King County Department of Transportation in 1997, became a transit operator in 2000 and transferred to light rail as an operator in 2009, according to his lawsuit, which was filed in 2016. He alleged he was passed over for promotion and removed from a technical training position — which was given to a younger white man — just eight days after the job had been assigned to him.
Brown also claimed his Metro supervisors repeatedly rejected his application to be a Rail Supervisor in Training, despite high test scores. The lawsuit alleged that Brown had frequently complained about what he believed to be discriminatory employment practices at Metro and said his supervisors singled him out for discipline or rejected his applications for advancement, with his race being a factor.
Brown said union officials told him that the county would never hire a supervisor with “braids,” according to court documents.
“It is plaintiff’s theory of the case that since the start of the Sound Transit Light Rail System, King County management … have created and repeatedly modified a promotional system that allows them to preselect the employees they wish to promote, which has resulted in discrimination toward persons of color who are not considered the stereotypical promotional candidate,” wrote Brown’s attorney, Darryl Parker, in a trial brief.
Jeff Switzer, the public information officer for King County Metro, said the agency “is committed to equity and offers strong protections against discrimination and retaliation.” He said Metro is reviewing the case and considering whether to appeal.
Parker said Brown was 66 when he filed his complaint, and believes the county had been waiting for him to retire and resolve the lawsuit.
Zilly granted a King County motion to dismiss the lawsuit in 2018, however Brown appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel reinstated all of Brown’s claims in August 2020 and sent the case back to Zilly for trial.
The appeals judges noted that Brown was engaged in protected activity when he filed his discrimination complaint in 2013. Shortly thereafter he was selected for the training position and then abruptly removed from the job despite satisfactory performance. The judges notes that the person who made that decision knew of Brown’s complaints of discrimination.
The judges also pointed out that King County disqualified his application for a promotion as “incomplete,” even though he had submitted the same application in prior years without problems. “There is a triable issue as to whether the person who rejected Brown’s application knew about his discrimination complaint at the relevant time,” the appeals court ruling said.
The jury dismissed the discrimination claims, but found on Brown’s behalf in connection with the allegations that Metro officials retaliated against him for filing complaints. The jury awarded Brown $228,952 in economic damages and $671,300 for emotional harm.
Parker, Brown’s attorney, said he will seek attorneys fees and costs, which likely will be substantial given that the lawsuit had been in litigation for nearly six years.