City of Columbia pays $90,000 in gender discrimination claim

Wednesday, October 27, 2010 | 6:19 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The city of Columbia has paid $90,000 to a former landfill employee and her attorney to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit.

The dollar amount of the settlement between the city and the former employee, Caroline Heller, was intended to be confidential. But the city released the figure in a routine memo to the City Council about payments made from its risk management office.

Heller's attorney, Donna Lynn Harper, said the case has "been settled to our satisfaction."

Heller filed the lawsuit on Nov. 10, 2009, more than a year after she was fired from her temporary position at the landfill, where she was paid $13 an hour to operate bulldozers and 40-ton dump trucks.

Harper said her client was the only woman operating heavy equipment at the landfill. Her lawsuit stated that her immediate supervisor, Ronald Acton, told her “that women should not work at the landfill” and that co-worker Tim Teel wanted her to quit.

Margrace Buckler, human resources director for the city, said both Acton and Teel remain employed in the positions they held when Heller was fired.   

Although the city eventually settled the lawsuit, it argued in its initial response filed by attorney Jane Drummond that there was no basis for the claims of discrimination and that Heller's termination was "based on reasonable factors other than gender."

Asked what those factors were, Buckler said that temporary employees are seasonal. 

“We put them on, and they’re taken off as needed,” Buckler said.

Richard Wieman, solid waste utility manager, said his division employs women in many capacities. At the landfill, Buckler said, a woman runs the scale house. Another once ran the landfill's bioreactor until she accepted another job. There also are women who sort recyclables at the city's material recovery facility. The city has had women driving garbage trucks before, but there are none now.

Heller worked at the landfill from May through mid-October of 2008 after passing a test that gauged her ability to operate bulldozers, track hoes and scrappers, Harper said. The lawsuit stated that Darrell Lampkins, a supervisor at the landfill, told Heller that "she would receive the next permanent position available" there.

On October 14, 2008, Acton dealt with a disagreement between Heller and Teel. The next day, "during a meeting Plaintiff requested to address her concerns about Tim Teel, Ron Acton and Darrell Lampkins instead informed her that she was being terminated from her employment. Plaintiff asked why she was being terminated and was told 'we just decided to let you go.' Plaintiff asked why again and was told 'just because.'”

Heller's lawsuit stated that men who worked at the landfill also had complained about Teel being difficult to work with, but none of them was disciplined or terminated.

“In this instance, the parties reached a mutually satisfactory settlement, which the City views as an effective and appropriate means for resolving the case," Buckler said in an e-mail. "We are pleased that this matter has been resolved and do not intend to make any additional comments on the case.”

Wieman had no comment about whether the resolution of the lawsuit was fair.

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