The City is on the hook this month for allegedly creating a hostile working environment at the Department of Public Works (DPW) City Yard after a split decision by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) agreed with part of an employee discrimination case filed in 2008.
The case came from DPW Mechanic Martin Gonya and was filed directly against DPW Superintendent Don Goodwin for allegedly creating a hostile working environment and for disparate treatment concerning suspensions. The crux of the case centered around Gonya’s hearing impairment, which he has had since he was a child.
In a recent decision, MCAD Investigator Sunila Thomas-George ruled that there was probable cause in the claim that Goodwin had probably discriminated against Gonya by causing a hostile working environment.
That ruling means that the City must participate in a Conciliation Conference on July 28. If the matter cannot be resolved at the conference, it will advance to a public hearing before MCAD Commissioners.
The probable cause finding was arrived at specifically because of a witness/co-worker at the DPW that testified to hearing the disparaging comments on a regular basis.
“Investigation reveals that a witness confirms that Goodwin allegedly subjected the Complainant to a hostile work environment in front of other employees,” wrote Thomas-George. “The witness confirms that Goodwin frequently made fun of Complainant’s stuttering; called Complainant ‘a retard’; said that Complainant should go and ‘get a hearing aid’; and called him a ‘deaf mute.’ While Goodwin disputes that the comments were in any way related to Complainant’s hearing loss or speech impediment, it is a material fact better left for determination by a fact finder. Therefore a probable cause determination is recommended for hostile work environment.”
Goodwin and the City categorically deny the claims by Gonya and, some time ago, filed a detailed response to his complaint outlining totally different sets of circumstances for each of his allegations.
“We don’t think there’s any merit to it,” said Mayor Tom Ambrosino. “We’ll deal with it at the conciliation conference. I would always like to resolve things; that will be my preference at the conference.”
Most observers close to the case believed that Goodwin and the City would prevail. However, with the testimony of a co-worker/witness, things did change a bit.
The identity of the witness is protected in the proceedings, which are not open to the public.
Gonya filed his complaint in August 2008, and the case was under investigation until this February when MCAD told the Journal that they were wrapping up their investigation.
They indicated at that time that it took so long because several issues emerged that they wanted to thoroughly investigate.
“We don’t like to keep people waiting, but at the same time we have to be very careful,” said MCAD spokesperson Barbara Green in February. “We have to dot all our ‘I’s’ and cross our ‘t’s.’ We never give anyone a timeline because a lot of times there is a lot more that comes out once we start looking into something.”
Gonya’s complaint indicated that he had suffered from hearing loss and stuttering since he was a young child.
Goodwin hired him as a mechanic in 2002, and Gonya alleges that he was verbally harassed by Goodwin – calling him a “deaf mute” and other derogatory comments – at least six out of every 10 work shifts.
In a response filing, Goodwin indicated that he had used some choice words with Gonya once, but it was during an argument in which Gonya used an insulting term towards his co-workers.
In a piece of good news for the City, the MCAD investigator ruled that Gonya did not have probable cause to proceed with the complaint of disparate treatment.
Gonya indicated that he had been disciplined more severely by Goodwin because of their rocky relationship and that he had been disciplined for things that others got away with.
The investigator indicated that the City and Goodwin positively showed that there was no evidence of this happening.
“Complainant has failed to provide any specifics, details or comparators outside of his protected class who committed the same violations,” wrote Thomas-George. “Although Complainant alleges that Respondent has not disciplined other workers, investigation reveals that other workers, not in Complainant’s protected category, who have been suspended and received various forms of discipline for violation of Respondent’s policy during 2003 to 2008. Investigation reveals that Respondent had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for suspending and disciplining the Complainant. Therefore, a lack of probable cause is recommended for disparate treatment.”
All parties are expected to attend the July 28 hearing.