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Wednesday, October 23, 2013
A lawsuit recently filed by a former North County Transit District employee alleges age and gender-based discrimination within the agency, and points the finger at NCTD's chief executive officer, Matthew Tucker.
SAN DIEGO A former employee of the North County Transit District has sued the public transportation agency, claiming its executive director, Matthew Tucker, illegally targeted employees -- specifically, older female employees -- for layoffs, then retaliated when his decisions were questioned.
Virginia Moeller, a former human resources employee, filed the lawsuit last month. She is claiming age and gender discrimination and accusing the transit district, known as NCTD, of failing to protect employees from Tucker’s actions.
Moeller declined to be interviewed, but current and former employees have described, both in public court documents and in interviews with inewsource, Tucker’s hiring and firing practices within the government agency tasked with running the county’s SPRINTER, COASTER, BREEZE and LIFT train and bus services.
In her lawsuit, Moeller said Tucker “chose older employees, and at times, older female employees for layoff” and “made various age and age/gender based remarks indicating a bias against female, and/or older female employees.”
She claims “the bias manifested itself” when Tucker fired her.
The lawsuit contends the actions violate state law.
Moeller’s is the second lawsuit against NCTD alleging discrimination since Tucker’s hire in December 2008. The first was filed by former bus operations manager Kim Stone in April 2012. The district did not respond to a request for a copy of the settlement, but NCTD check records show Stone and her lawyer were paid $42,418 on January 18, 2013.
Stone’s lawyer, Laura Farris, told U-T San Diego at the time, “We believe that Kim’s situation is endemic of what is happening at the transit district.”
Tucker and the North County board chairman declined to comment on either Moeller or Stone’s lawsuits, or any of the allegations former district employees discussed with inewsource.
Heidi Rockey, a former grants specialist who resigned from NCTD in July 2012, told inewsource Tucker made a habit of firing, laying off or demoting women over 40.
“One of my last acts of defiance,” she said, “was to quit coloring my hair.”
Moeller’s lawyer, Bill Woodson, said he is astounded by the brazenness of Tucker’s actions.
“There are just too many people that are saying the same thing, singing the same song...” he said, “and it’s being ignored.”
“Like so many others…”
After his hire in December 2008, Tucker’s biggest hurdle was to streamline NCTD and pull back from what one board member described as a fiscal death spiral -- a looming budget deficit and drastic cuts to state transit funding. In response, the new CEO engineered an unprecedented agency outsourcing plan, and by mid-2012, more than 80 percent of the district’s staff was let go. Many within the agency’s bus division took new jobs with the outside contractor, First Transit.
The board applauded the move, Tucker received a raise, and his story was highlighted throughout the national transit community and even by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which honored NCTD with its Golden Watchdog Award for “sound fiscal decision-making.”
Rockey, the district’s former grants specialist who is 54, said after the downsizing, the remaining employees thought the worst was over. But soon after, she said, older women became targets.
“If it had been one person here, one person there.. but it wasn’t” she said.
Current and former employees interviewed by inewsource said the executive director often replaced older, female employees with attractive, younger women.
According to sources who were either the subject of the statements or witnessed the actions firsthand, Tucker frequently referred to older female employees as “grandma”; asked if they had enough energy to do their jobs; suggested they dye their hair to look younger; and repeatedly said younger women were “easier on the eyes” than their predecessors.
Two years ago, Rockey and several of her colleagues dubbed the situation inside the Oceanside headquarters, “Tucker’s War on Women Over 40.”
“It was all these women, all over 40,” Rockey said, “and it became really obvious. It was sort of a gallows humor, people said, ‘lookout, if you’re over 40, you might be next.’”
Rockey said she left the agency after discovering and reporting to her superiors that federal Transit Administration grants to NCTD were being over-encumbered. She said the amounts were small -- a few dollars here and there -- but it worried her enough to document the overdraws in an agency database, and to inform three employees in her department about the repeated occurrences.
She said she was told it didn’t matter.
“I left because I just couldn't deal with it anymore,” Rockey said. “I reached my threshold for breach-of-ethics issues.”
In Moeller’s lawsuit against the agency, the former HR manager accused Tucker of preferring certain employees for hire, transfer or promotion based on their age, gender or race with “a distinct disregard” for the law.
Tucker had been hiring and restructuring the organization without board approval since his hire, a violation of the district’s own policy. An NCTD spokesman at the time claimed the violation was “an oversight on the part of the entire NCTD team,” according to the U-T San Diego. Yet a few weeks later, he and the rest of the board gave the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, abolish and create employee positions to Tucker as executive director. It’s called Policy 19.
Moeller’s lawsuit takes issue with a separate policy change under Tucker’s leadership. Resolution 78-14, a 33-year-old policy, placed laid-off employees at the top of re-employment lists in order of seniority. The board rescinded the law in mid-2011.
Moeller’s lawyer wrote that Tucker “on at least one occasion, undertook to change a NCTD policy regarding layoffs in order to target older employees” and to make the layoffs appear “lawful, legitimate, and pursuant to NCTD policies.”
Moeller is also claiming “failure to prevent discrimination” and “negligent supervision” in the lawsuit.
“Somebody in a position of authority is backing this guy,” said Woodson, Moeller’s lawyer, “because this has been going on for a very long time and it’s fairly outrageous.”
Allegations from Moeller, Woodson, Rockey, and Stone were echoed by three former NCTD upper-managers, as well as others who know the executive director personally. They told inewsource they’ve seen the alleged behavior firsthand, and said many people inside the agency know of the practice -- including NCTD board members.
Angela Miller, the district’s former chief technology officer, told the HR department and NCTD's board of directors in an email on Sept. 12, 2012 that she felt she was being “harassed and bullied,” and that the behavior “was becoming endemic at the agency.”
“I would have loved the opportunity to continue working with such a strong technology team and to assist with meeting the challenges of continuing to provide service to the residents of North County -- if I had felt respected and valued. But, like so many others, I did not.” — Angela Miller, September 2012
The district’s board chairman, Supervisor Bill Horn, declined to comment on any of the subjects in this story, citing the pending litigation. Horn has also declined to comment on all but one of the 24 stories inewsource has published about NCTD since February.
Questions, tips or suggestions? Email reporter Brad Racino or call him at 619.594.3569.
Brad Racino is a reporter with KPBS media partner inewsource