It will pay $485,000 but denies bias against black bus drivers.
Black bus drivers for Metro Transit say their bosses have been manipulating passenger complaints for years to target them for discipline or dismissal.
Now a federal court has ordered the Metropolitan Council, which runs the bus system, to overhaul its workplace procedures to avoid discrimination.
"If this doesn't substantially change the workplace, then justice hasn't been served," said U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank. He approved a settlement this week of a class action suit representing 500 black drivers who alleged they were victims of a longstanding and deliberate pattern of discrimination. The judge said the deal avoided a lengthy and costly court battle over the merits of the claims with an uncertain outcome.
"We vigorously deny ever having tolerated discrimination," Metro Transit general manager Brian Lamb said Friday.
The Met Council and its bus agency agreed to pay three of the drivers and their lawyer $485,000 as well as change Metro Transit workplace procedures.
Lamb said the bus system changed "our customer complaint handling process by implementing additional checks and balances. We believe these changes will ensure consistency to...all of our employees, as well as our customers."
New rules for complaints
The changes include blocking supervisors from viewing records of old customer complaints and tracking the resolution of new complaints by the race of the bus drivers for court monitoring.
In addition, the agreement calls for new guidelines for verifying customer complaints and requires the agency to give drivers written notice that they have a right to contact civil rights officers if they believe discipline is discriminatory.
The court has authority to monitor the deal for the next five years.
The lawsuit was filed late last year along with the proposed settlement, which the two sides negotiated for more than a year.
It alleged that an overwhelmingly white management treated black drivers unfairly in promotions, working conditions and discipline.
They "pursued trumped-up accusations" from passengers to deny promotions and retaliate against drivers who complained, the lawsuit said.
"My overall record...includes past complaints from unruly transit customers," said driver Steven Duncan, who said he was wrongly fired earlier this year. "I believe the decision that led to my discharge was not fair under the circumstances."
Lamb, in a message to employees, said, "It is at the heart of our operation never to discriminate against those who board our buses and trains and this principle applies equally to working here."
"We should always be willing to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our practices and also invite scrutiny from those outside of our agency," he said.
The payments of $20,000 to each of the three drivers and $425,000 to their attorney, Kent Williams of Long Lake, cover their time and expenses on the case and monitoring the settlement for the next five years.
Perception or reality?
Whatever the merits of the allegations, Frank said in court that "there is a shared perception that this has happened over time to African-American drivers."
In agreeing to the changes, Met Council lawyer Susan Ellingstad told the judge, "The Met Council is extremely concerned about perception."
But drivers told the judge the problem was more than perception and that they risked retaliation for filing the suit.
"We stuck our necks out," said Dujuan Williams, one of three drivers named in the suit. He said some unnamed drivers said: "You guys are crazy. You're going to get fired."
The three drivers, employed for more than 30 years combined at Metro Transit, said they were held to a different standard than white drivers.
Driver Sammie Lee Austin alleged in the suit that he told supervisors that he was threatened by a white person (not employed by Metro Transit) and asked to be switched to another route.
He said it was the kind of request approved for white drivers, but Metro Transit said no. Austin took days off at his expense "to allow the situation to cool down so that he could drive his route without fearing for his physical safety," the suit said.
Discipline was a major concern.
Former driver Terrance Williams said he suffered retaliation after he complained that management didn't preserve evidence favorable to him in a grievance proceeding.
Management filed "virtually every customer complaint they received about Mr. Williams, regardless of whether it was...supported by evidence," the suit said.
In 2008 he was accused of striking a woman's walker with his bus. A supervisor's report written moments after the alleged incident "indicated there was no physical evidence of any contact," but Metro Transit fired him.
He was reinstated and learned that two white drivers who struck pedestrians in 2009 avoided any serious discipline, the suit said. He was later fired again.
Some black bus drivers balked at the settlement, telling Frank that the agency was getting off easy.
The judge disagreed, but said the terms should be monitored over the next five years.
"If this is carried out...I believe we will be closer to fair and equal treatment," he said.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504