Category: Race Discrimination

In 2016, Palo Alto’s Children’s Theatre director filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the city of Palo Alto. The lawsuit, which was marked the second time the director had filed a discrimination complaint against the city, was settled earlier this month. The city agreed to pay James Luckey $55,000 in exchange for dropping the suit.

City Employee Raises Several Issues of Race-Based Discrimination

According to reports, Luckey was employed as the director of Palo Alto’s Children’s Theatre, a city-run organization. In 2016, he filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the city and his direct supervisor. In his complaint, he accused his supervisor of treating him and his white co-workers differently.

The complaint also included several specific examples of his supervisor’s discriminatory treatment. Luckey’s discrimination lawsuit claimed:

  • He was never invited to one-on-one lunches with his supervisor, as his white co-workers were.
  • He was unable to perform aspects of his job because his supervisor refused to meet with him to discuss budgets and goals.
  • White co-workers received a pay increase of 5 to 10 percent, but he did not, even though his responsibilities at work increased.
  • He was denied the right to log his actual work hours on the city’s payroll, making it seem as though he worked less than his white co-workers. This, he claimed, adversely affected his chances of getting a promotion or pay raise. Between 2013 and 2014, his supervisor blocked pay raises that he had earned.
  • His supervisor made racially-insensitive remarks on several occasions at work.

Filing the lawsuit was Luckey’s way of bringing attention to racial discrimination in the workplace and fighting for what he believed he was wrongfully denied.

City Denies Discrimination, Points to Lackluster Work History In Defense

Racial discrimination occurs when an employee is “treated unfavorably” because of his or her race “or because of personal characteristics associated with race.” To win a racial discrimination lawsuit, an employee has the burden of proving that the unfavorable treatment they’ve experienced at work is related to or because of their race.

This doesn’t mean that employers can never take adverse action against any of their employees. An employer’s actions can be justified as long as there are legitimate, non-race-based reasons for doing so. In response to Luckey’s lawsuit, the city of Palo Alto raised several claims in its defense. It primarily pointed to Luckey’s questionable history of conduct at work:

  • In 2011, Luckey was suspended for 5 days for a series of fingerprint violations that put children in the theatre at risk.
  • Luckey regularly failed to adhere to the city theatre’s budget.
  • Luckey delegated his work inappropriately.
  • Luckey failed to display respect for his co-workers and staff.
  • In 2012, Luckey reportedly allowed a contractor with multiple criminal convictions to work with children at the theatre before being fingerprinted.
  • Luckey was regularly accused by staff of failing to communicate and providing sub-par direction.
  • Performance reviews regularly stated that Luckey “successfully meets expectations,” but nothing showed that he went above and beyond his responsibilities.
  • Luckey did receive some pay raises because of his performance reviews.
  • At least two staff members filed formal complaints against Luckey with the Labor Department.

The city also offered an explanation for why Luckey was not permitted to log his actual work hours on the city payroll. They claim that all employees, including Luckey, had to receive pre-approval from management to record extra work hours. This was a neutral city policy that had nothing to do with his race.

In other words, the city blamed Luckey’s strained relationship with his supervisor on the lack of effort and quality of his work. Any adverse employment actions that he perceived were not initiated because of his race, but rather because of his performance and attitude.

City Settles to End Costly Litigation

In the end, the city of Palo Alto agreed to settle with Luckey for a sum of $55,000. In offering the settlement, the city did not admit to any wrongdoing or discriminatory conduct. Instead, it acknowledged that there were areas in which both the supervisor and employee could improve. Luckey was required to agree to drop the lawsuit and all other claims of discrimination in exchange for the payment.