Schor defends himself and the city against bias suit

Nine-plaintiff suit "very political," city attorney declares

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FRIDAY, Aug. 14 — Lansing Mayor Andy Schor defended himself today against a racial discrimination and race-based retaliation lawsuit levied against him, the city and other top officials this week by nine current and former city employees.

“Mayor Schor and his administration take pride in the diversity of the city staff and the valuable input that they all provide,” according to a statement from his office. The city will respond further after it has been officially served with the suit.

City Attorney Jim Smiertka called the lawsuit “very political” and “inflammatory,” according to the Lansing State Journal. He also said it will “probably be very expensive litigation based on the amount of plaintiffs.”

Detroit Attorney Scott Batey, who filed the suit, countered: “There’s no politics involved in this. You can’t target a race of people and systematically get rid of them using the same playbook and get away with it. The fact that he finds what the mayor did inflammatory? Now that speaks volumes to this outrageous conduct.”

Batey said the “end goal” of the lawsuit is to allow city employees to go to work without being targeted based on the color of their skin. It isn’t entirely about money, he said, but he expects a jury to award damages that are appropriate for some of the harm that simply cannot be undone.

Each plaintiff claimed to have been subjected to race-based “unwelcome communication and conduct.”

They also claimed that the allegedly racist treatment had “substantially interfered with their employment” with the city, according to the complaint. As a result, Schor’s administration and fire union officials are now accused of violating the Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in 30th Circuit Court, by several current and former members of the Lansing Fire Department: former Chief Randy Talifarro, Maintenance Captain Michael Demps, Firefighter Wesley Demps, Battalion Chief Terry Israel, Administrative Chief David Odom, Staff Officer Bruce Odom, and Fire Logistics Chief Jwan Vanez Randell.

Fired mayoral scheduler Natasha Atkinson and former Information Technology Director Collin Boyce are also suing. The city, Schor, Deputy Mayor Samantha Harkins, International Association of Firefighters Local 421, former union president Eric Weber and former interim Fire Chief Dave Purchase are named as defendants.

Weber and Purchase declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The complaint alleges the employees were “subjected to repeated and continuous discriminatory treatment, hostile working environments and adverse employment actions” including suspensions, terminations and being “forced out of their positions” due to their race.

The suit also argued that in many instances, they had complained to upper management, only to find themselves retaliated against for voicing discrimination concerns.

“The city of Lansing suffers from systemic racism which plaintiffs experienced almost immediately after beginning their careers. Plaintiffs were constantly being targeted due to their race, creating hostile and offensive work environments,” according to the recent complaint.

The suit, which was assigned to Circuit Judge Wanda Stokes Jr., was filed by a Detroit attorney Scott Batey. It seeks a minimum of $150,000 in damages, plus attorney fees.

The lawsuit is at least the second racial discrimination filed against the city since Schor took office. Firefighter Michael Lynn Jr. also remains involved in litigation against the city. He and his wife, Erica Lynn, were the first to report the lawsuit last night on their podcast Merica 20 to Life.

Here’s a look at the plaintiffs and their specific allegations.

Natasha Atkinson

Atkinson, an East Lansing resident, was fired from her position as an events coordinator in Schor’s office in February. She had told City Pulse that her ideas for diversity were dismissed, white staffers had ignored her and that her desk had been repeatedly ransacked.

In the complaint, she alleges that Harkins told Atkinson that “we need a young black woman in the department” to eventually replace Marilyn Plummer as community outreach coordinator.

It also details a visit to the Mayor’s Office from Black Lives Matter activists after a Black teenager was repeatedly punched by a Lansing Police Department officer. Schor allegedly dismissed Atkinson’s suggestions to prepare a statement before meeting with protesters. Atkinson also claims Citizen Advocate Mark Lawrence referred to those activists as a “dog without a bone.”

Later, Atkinson contended to have “experienced intimidation and harassment” for attempts to promote diversity in Schor’s administration and that it became a recurring theme in the office.

The complaint also claims that Harkins told Atkinson that her “ovaries scream” when she sees Chief Administrative Officer Nicholas Tate, a Black man, and that she “LOVES black men.”

Harkins — who was out ill this week — couldn’t be reached for comment this afternoon.

The lawsuit also describes a “loud discussion” between Harkins and Joan Jackson Johnson, a Black woman and former human relations and community relations director who was suspended and then retired after she was accused of financial improprieties. Harkins reportedly yelled at Jackson Johnson, who replied, “I’m not scared of you. Harkins responded: “I’m not scared of you.”

After that incident, Atkinson said Harkins told her that “professional black women have a bad attitude” and “chip on their shoulder, maybe rightfully so, but they have to learn how to take direction,” according to the complaint. Racism, Atkinson contended, was abundant at City Hall.

Jackson Johnson corroborated the account earlier this afternoon. She also said she had been in conversations with Batey about the possibility of joining as a plaintiff in the case, but ultimately decided against becoming involved in the litigation.

Harkins also reportedly told Atkinson that mayoral staffer Valerie Marchand had “a problem with black people” after growing up in Troy, and that Atkinson “intimidated” her. Harkins also said Marchand “did not associate with black people,” so she was scared of Atkinson in the office.

The complaint also describes attempts from Atkinson to add some more diverse music to the city’s downtown playlist earlier this year. Marchand — who is also the city’s DJ — allegedly complained about Atkinson to Harkins and “went home crying,” according to the complaint.

Marchand didn’t respond to questions on those allegations this afternoon.

By last November, Atkinson also claimed she was “shunned” and ignored by white staffers in the Mayor’s Office, only to find her desk overturned after she tried to report city officials for needlessly purchasing expensive lunches and afternoon drinks on city-issued credit cards.

In response to Atkinson’s complaints, the City Council briefly considered launching an investigation into Schor’s office, only to have the idea shot down by Smiertka. Council has no legal authority to investigate the Mayor’s Office, he said last month.

A subsequent records request — which was sent by City Pulse weeks ago — revealed that Schor actually had no documented reason for kicking Atkinson to the curb. No complaints were filed. City officials couldn’t locate a single incident that would have led to Atkinson’s firing.

Randy Talifarro

Talifarro, an East Lansing resident, served as fire chief for both the Lansing and East Lansing Fire departments from January 2012 until he quit the dual role in July 2018, opting to only serve as chief of the East Lansing Fire Department. He had told City Pulse that he left because the workplace became “extremely uncomfortable” after Schor took office in January.

In the recent complaint, Talifarro alleges that he experienced “demeaning and discriminatory” treatment from many officials in the city but especially from Schor. Talifarro also contends that the mayor, even before his term began in 2018, had conspired to fire him based largely on racist rumors that were spread at the time by the firefighters’ union’s Weber.

Talifarro also claimed he and Bruce Odom were wrongly blamed in 2018 for an apartment fire at LarRoy Froh Townhouses, a large complex owned and maintained by the Lansing Housing Commission. He said Schor also wrongly blamed former LHC Director Martell Armstrong, also a Black man.

The complaint also alleges that Weber had a pattern of defending white firefighters while often demanding that Black firefighters be severely reprimanded or fired for comparably minor offenses, creating a “hostile work environment marked by unequal treatment” for Black staff.

Talifarro said his authority as chief was “routinely circumvented” by the city, alleging officials had conspired to “harshly punish” Black staff while largely ignoring misconduct of white employees.

Schor and Harkins also never consulted Talifarro on any matter concerning fire operations, code enforcement, staffing practices or management during his seven months as fire chief, he said.

“Schor would disregard any idea or concern expressed by Talifarro no matter his experience on the matter, until a Caucasian voiced support for it,” the complaint reads, alleging that Schor also delayed the promotion of Bruce Odom, another Black employee at the Lansing Fire Department.

Talifarro and Schor were also entangled in a public, and widely reported, dispute last year when Talifarro bashed Schor over an almost entirely white and male class of firefighters hired in 2018.

Collin Boyce

Boyce, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona, resigned last year after he and other black employees who dared to challenge Schor’s authority were pushed aside or fired, he told City Pulse earlier this year. Boyce said he only left after Schor refused to value his work and “forced” him to leave.

“This isn’t Ku Klux Klan racism, you know with white sheets and burning crosses. It’s ‘Negro: You have to stay in your place,” Boyce explained in a City Pulse interview. “And if you don’t leave when they want you to leave, then they’re going to find a way to nudge you out the door.”

The complaint states that Boyce inherited a “hodgepodge” of dated software and an inept security system, but he was able to modernize the department under former Mayor Virg Bernero. After Schor was sworn in, Boyce said it felt like the administration was trying to “force” him out.

Schor and Harkins reportedly created such a racially hostile work environment toward Boyce that other city officials began to take notice, the complaint states. At one point, a city official reportedly told Harkins and Schor: “If you’re going to force him out, you better have a plan.”

Boyce said he made numerous complaints about racism to Schor, noting the mayor rarely met with Black department heads “unless he needed a scapegoat.” The complaint also alleges Boyce and Talifarro were “falsely accused” of stealing computer software because of their race.

“Boyce continued to work 12-18 hour days despite feeling like trash due to the racist conduct from Mayor Schor and others in the mayor’s office,” the complaint states, noting Boyce was accused of inappropriate sexual relationships and unfairly punished for bringing his kids to work.

Boyce resigned after he “could no longer accept the constant racial discrimination” in Schor’s office, he said. Schor, however, didn’t mention racial tensions when discussing Boyce last year.

In a statement sent to City Pulse earlier this year, he also dodged questions on “personnel” issues and flatly refused to acknowledge any racially-based problem within his office.

“I treasure the diverse voices of my staff and cabinet,” he said. “They are hardworking and dedicated people focused on serving the residents of Lansing, and I learn from them every day. I seek feedback and advice from all of them, without micromanaging so they can do their jobs.”

As for the several people of color that have suggested otherwise? “My team and I take the policies and ethical standards of the city very seriously, and we follow them,” Schor added.

Wesley Demps

Wesley Demps, a Lansing resident, has been a firefighter since 1999. The complaint contends he was repeatedly denied employment opportunities and falsely accused of misconduct because of his race, which allegedly created “an offensive and hostile work environment.”

Demps reportedly wanted to become a battalion chief and was required to take a routine examination in order to be considered for the job. Despite similarly situated white employees being permitted to take the exam, the complaint contends Demps was denied access to the test.

Demps was later promoted to a financial officer in October, 2019 but was never provided with a job description and continuing education, despite asking for them, he contended. He also claimed that Purchase had treated him poorly because of his race before he later accepted a demotion back to firefighter in an effort to avoid harassment, discrimination and other threats.

Michael Demps

Michael Demps, a Lansing resident, is Wesley Demps’ brother, and was said to have been highly involved in Lynn’s ongoing racial discrimination lawsuit filed against the city. Demps said he was told by his supervisor that officials had been directed to “go after” Lynn in retaliation.

Demps said he was told that complaints of racial discrimination would not be tolerated at the Lansing Fire Department and would result in discipline and a “hostile work environment.”

In one instance, a Black woman reportedly told Demps that she was “tired of white guys telling on us,” the complaint states. Those concerns were not only ignored, but Talifarro was reportedly instructed by city officials to punish Demps for fielding those concerns, the complaint states.

“Demps received a verbal warning as disciplinary action, which is significant because it starts the disciplinary process,” the complaint states. “Later, the Fire Department conducted an investigation and determined that Demps committed no misconduct and did the right thing.”

Still, according to the complaint, Weber insisted Talifarro punish Demps more severely.

Terry Israel

Israel, a Lansing resident, has worked at the Fire Department since 1996 and served as battalion chief since last December. After his promotion, according to the complaint, he became the target of “harassment and discrimination” — namely from Assistant Chief Michael Tobin.

As the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, Israel began working remotely for portions of the day. Tobin subsequently began investigating him and may have had him secretly surveilled, the complaint states, but he didn’t conduct a similar investigation on any white battalion chiefs.

Eventually, officials tried to demote Israel to a captain in an alleged violation of a collective bargaining agreement that would’ve prevented the move. Instead, Israel was eventually suspended for two days while white employees continued remote work without punishment.

“No similarly situated Caucasian battalion chiefs were disciplined,” according to the complaint.

Bruce Odom

Bruce Odom, a Lansing resident, reportedly underwent an extensive interview process in 2017 to become an assistant fire chief, but he was unfairly denied the promotion due to his race despite having the “highest blended score” on a promotional assessment, the complaint states.

The complaint also states that Talifarro was asked by outgoing mayor Virg Bernero — at Schor’s request — to “hold off” on promoting Odom. Bernero reportedly told Talifarro that Schor had “issues” with those who were invited to apply for the job and suspended Odom’s application.

Bernero couldn’t be reached today to lend a perspective on the encounter. The former mayor, who is considering a run against Schor next year, has been publicly critical of how his successor has dealt with Black former officials.

Weber, who also served on Schor’s transition team in addition to his role as union president, allegedly didn’t want Odom promoted to assistant chief and was actively interfering with the process. Still, Odom was eventually promoted to assistant chief in February, 2018 but was reportedly paid much less than other assistant chiefs at the department, the complaint states.

Schor and Harkins also reportedly demanded that Odom discipline Black officers in cases where discipline had already been deemed inappropriate while withdrawing disciplinary action against several white firefighters who had been “investigated for several crimes,” the complaint states.

Odom also said he was falsely accused of gender discrimination and forced to go through “cultural sensitivity training” for denying a female firefighter’s request to attend a conference. In reality, Odom “was a champion of women’s rights and advancement,” according to the lawsuit.

Additionally, when Talifarro resigned, Odom was reportedly asked to no longer attend the mayor’s cabinet meetings and, despite serving as the highest-ranking employee at the time, was never considered for the job of interim fire chief before Purchase was later appointed to the role.

Odom said that after Talifarro was “forced to resign,” he became “increasingly marginalized” at the department and was relegated to minor tasks. The continued “racial hostility” eventually forced him to retire in July 2018 after he was made to feel like a “second-class” employee.

David Odom

David Odom, a Lansing resident, is Bruce Odom’s cousin. After Lynn filed a discrimination suit against the city, Purchase reportedly told Odom that Lynn “could not be trusted” and that Odom needed to “distance himself from race issues” if he ever hoped to earn a promotion in the city.

Purchase also allegedly told Odom that he was “tired of this black stuff” at the department. Odom also complained that he was subjected to a hostile work environment and threats whenever he discussed concerns with his supervisors. Schor reportedly promoted those supervisors in an alleged “patent effort to silence” Odom’s concerns on racial discrimination.

Jwan Vanez Randle

Randle, who lives in Mason, has worked at the Fire Department since 2000 and served as chief of logistics — formerly chief of maintenance — since March 2016. Randle reportedly tried to defend Boyce and Talifarro from accusations that they had stolen a city computer program, but he was in turn threatened by Purchase to stop discussing any accusations made against Boyce.

Purchase later accused Randle of stealing a push mower, gas cans and axes from a job. The allegations, according to the complaint, were only part of a “pattern” of discriminatory treatment.

The complaint also says union officials attempted to demote Randle and eliminate his division.

Purchase also reportedly told Randle to “watch out” because Lynn was “troublemaker” and repeatedly insinuated that Randle was involved in a scheme to steal equipment with Talifarro.

“Purchase intentionally set up Randle to fail due to his race by refusing to provide a full staff for Randle’s division and then accused Randle of underperforming,” according to the complaint.

Check back with lansingcitypulse.com for updates to this developing story.

 

 

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