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Two California Public Water Utility Attorneys Awarded $6 million

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Two lawyers who filed yet another racial discrimination lawsuit against their former employer East Bay Municipal Utility District were awarded $6million by a California jury.

San Francisco, CATwo attorneys who filed a racial discrimination complaint and then a retaliation complaint against their former employer, East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD, also known as East Bay MUD), were awarded $6 million. After the California Labor trial in June before Judge Alex Tse, the jury agreed that the former employees, one Asian-American and the other African-American, were retaliated against after they complained about racial discrimination. They were both forced to resign. And EBMUD has a history of discrimination complaints.

Plaintiffs Ayriel Bland and Saji Pierce filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2021 against the district and two former co-workers. In their lawsuit, Bland and Pierce said that in 2018 EBMUD’s legal department hadn't hired a minority candidate in more than 16 years or an African-American candidate in more than 22 years, despite their Oakland location, which is one of the most diverse communities in the U.S.

Pierce, an Asian American, was an EBMUD attorney for 18 years. In early 2019 she filed an internal complaint alleging race discrimination after candidate Bland was passed over for an EBMUD job, despite the interview panel --which included Pierce –that unanimously ranked Bland as the number one candidate, reported ABC7 News. One year later, the district hired Bland. During the 18 months of her employment, Bland said she was treated in a “grossly discriminatory fashion based upon her race, including being given a heavier work load, denied an equal opportunity to attend training and other employment benefits”. She told the news station that she didn’t have an office. She was put in the library and her office supplies came from a "garbage bin" and "junk drawer" but white attorneys were allowed to order new supplies.

Bland filed a discrimination complaint in April 2020 against EBMUD’s former General Counsel, Craig Spencer. Five months later, Spencer accused Bland of having a conflict because she was a member of the Black Employee Network, an affinity group within EBMUD, according to court documents. She resigned in November 2020.

After complaining about racial discrimination, such as the hiring of applicants from racial minorities, Pierce claimed she was retaliated against: The district stymied their discrimination complaint by hiring three attorneys to "defend it and its errant employees" and violated laws prohibiting misuse of public resources. Pierce’s lawsuit states that:

"Their [EBMUD] conduct made it clear plaintiff Pierce would not receive a fair or neutral investigation…Their adverse treatment would likely discourage a reasonable person from opposing discrimination in the future. … [EBMUD’s] failure to provide a fair and neutral investigation and the continuing retaliation made plaintiff Pierce feel that she had no option but to resign her employment after almost 18 years.

Bland filed similar allegations, including not being allowed a laptop to work remotely while junior white attorneys were given laptops to do so. Bland added that she was denied training opportunities and resources that were available to white employees; she wasn’t promoted to a higher position even though she met all the requirements and more for the job compared with white attorneys in a similar or higher position. And there were other work inconveniences because she is African-American.

According to Law360, Nicole Ries Fox, an attorney for EBMUD, said the utility district “believes the jury's verdict on claims of retaliation runs counter to the strong case and extensive evidence the district presented during the trial…this includes findings of four independent outside investigations that EBMUD acted appropriately. At the same time, we are affirmed by the jury's decision to not uphold any of the plaintiff's discrimination claims. EBMUD will carefully review our legal options to determine next steps, including post-trial motions and an appeal to challenge the flawed verdict and damage awards."

East Bay MUD wrote in a statement to ABC7 News that it believes the legal claims are unfounded. "We are deeply committed to an environment where our employees, who provide water and wastewater services to our East Bay community, feel respected, valued, and supported. We strive every day to improve the experiences of all our employees and to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Previous Discrimination Charges

It appears that the utility district isn’t striving enough. East Bay MUD, which handles drinking water for Alameda and Contra Costa counties, has a history of discrimination. In 1983, two black employees filed a racial discrimination class action lawsuit claiming they been passed over for promotions because of their race. Five years later, EBMUD settled for about $750,000 and pledged to improve the upward mobility of its minority workforce.

And in June 2022, Shaunte Scott, a former customer services supervisor at East Bay MUD, accused the company of gender discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. Scott said she took her concerns to the labor relations manager, who encouraged her not to file a formal complaint. But in a motion for summary judgement, East Bay MUD attorneys argued that the labor relations manager does not recall Scott reporting gendered comments, complaints of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation and denied that she was discouraged from filing a complaint.

After ABC7 News ran the story about Scott, several former or current employees contacted them to share their experience of alleged discrimination at East Bay MUD.


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