A former senior manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission won a $637,000 verdict against his old employer in Prince George’s County Circuit Court last week.
The discrimination case, which was before Judge Leo E. Green Jr., began Sept. 12 and wrapped up Sept. 20. A jury returned the verdict after three hours of deliberation.
“I think it has significance because it shows that the county discrimination law is an effective mechanism to sue the WSSC,” said Timothy F. Maloney, the attorney for James K. Sillers.
Sillers’ original case, brought before the circuit court in November 2007, was dismissed because the court found that the WSSC, was not subject to county discrimination laws.
The Court of Appeals later heard the case. It reversed the decision and remanded the case to lower court.
According to Sillers’ complaint, he was demoted as a result of pressures being put on his general manager by Juanita Miller, a black commissioner at the WSSC, to remove white employees from management positions.
“A jury of three African-Americans and three Caucasians came together pretty quickly to find that there had been discrimination against a white manager,” Maloney said.
He said he believed the “courageous” testimony of former high-ranking black employees of the WSSC in favor of Sillers was the key to winning the verdict. Sillers was awarded $137,091 in back pay and $500,000 in non-economic damages.
Russel L. Beers, counsel for the WSSC, said the agency was still considering its response to the verdict.
Sillers had been with the agency for 30 years, working his way up from a sewer cleaner making $3.75 an hour to the manager of the waste water collection system group, overseeing 67 employees.
In fall 2005, his team had no place to put a small amount of construction debris, so he left it at the Anacostia dumping station. An investigation of the placement of that debris by the Maryland Department of the Environment found that he had not violated state law and no pollution had resulted from dumping the materials there.
But Sillers was fired anyway.
A WSSC panel overturned the firing and gave him a five-day suspension.
“The general manager was so upset that he put him in Siberia — a windowless office at Patuxent Water Filtration Plant. This is a guy who’s used to having a big corner office with windows on the 11th floor,” said Maloney of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt.
Sillers was put in a converted construction closet “with no meaningful thing to do,” Maloney said. He was given the job of project coordinator, but had no projects to coordinate.
After 18 months, Sillers quit in fall 2007. He alleged that it was a constructive discharge, because of his intolerable work conditions.
When Sillers brought his case before the Prince George’s County Circuit Court in November 2007, it was dismissed.
Sillers filed an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. The Court of Appeals issued a writ of certiorari on its own initiative, consolidating his case with two others which asked the same legal question.
In the consolidated case, the state’s top court said the WSSC could properly be considered a “person” in actions brought under Maryland Code, Article 49B § 42(a), based on the WSSC’s “hybrid characteristics,” such as its autonomy from the state and the internal control over much of its employment actions.
Section 42(a) allows an individual subjected to a discriminatory act prohibited by county code to bring a civil suit against the person that committed the act for damages, injunctive relief or other civil relief.
The court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case to the circuit court for trial.
In May, former WSSC employee Allen Cartwright, a black man who was demoted because of racial discrimination, obtained a $1.5 million verdict against the agency. Maloney also represented him.
Sillers v. Washington suburban sanitary commission
Prince George’s County Circuit Court
Leo E. Green Jr.
Incident: fall 2005 to fall 2007
Suit filed: Nov. 11, 2007
Disposition: Sept. 20, 2011
Timothy F. Maloney, Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt
Russel L. Beers, counsel for WSSC
Breach of contract