Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

City hit by suit from ex-HRC staffer


HRC Executive Director Theresa Sparks
(Photo: Rick Gerharter)
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A straight former employee at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission has filed a reverse sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit against the city.

Thomas Willis, who worked at the commission, filed a federal lawsuit against the agency in January. The lawsuit is headed for a settlement hearing in August.

Documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California indicate that during the period Willis worked at the HRC, much of the agency was ripe with dysfunction, including allegations of timecard fraud and long waits for constituents.

Through the complaint, Willis, an African American man, alleges that he faced discrimination based on sexual orientation and race, retaliation, defamation, and intentional interference with his contract.

HRC Executive Director Theresa Sparks and San Francisco Human Resources Director Micki Callahan are named individually as defendants in Willis's suit against the city.

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, said that as is typical in federal court, the court has directed the parties to engage in a settlement conference, which will take place August 8.

According to the complaint, around September 2010, Willis, who had been a longtime city employee, accepted a transfer to the HRC and became the senior manager of the non-discrimination division, reporting directly to Sparks. She informed him "of her desire to bring a higher level of scrutiny to employees' attendance policy and to increase the staff's productivity through management of time off and hours of work," the complaint says.

The filing says Willis began reviewing staff members' attendance as workers arrived "at various hours throughout the day, often leaving the commission's counter unmanned and the public waiting for hours to be served."

During one meeting, the complaint says, Willis was "informed about which employees displayed difficulties in taking management direction and which employees had attendance issues."

At Sparks's direction, "and consistent with his many years of experience" in the field, Willis reviewed performance evaluations and found that the manager "had consistently rated all employees as 'average and above.'" The manager informed Willis that it had "always been done that way," the complaint says.

Former HRC staffer Larry Brinkin, who was arrested last month on child pornography charges, is mentioned briefly in the suit. The filing says Willis had met twice with Brinkin, the department's previous manager, who apologized to him "for not paying attention to the unit and for the lack of supervision during his tenure." [Brinkin has not yet been charged in his case.]

The complaint says, "The majority of the unit became unhappy with Willis's supervision," and "wished to continue their unlawful practice of timecard theft." His requests for weekly reports and other seemingly routine items "were met with insubordination, derision, and false allegations that Willis harbored a sexual orientation bias towards members of the LGBT community," according to the documents.

When Willis complained to Sparks about "rampant timecard fraud" at the agency, she agreed to investigate, but "consistent with her long-standing bias against heterosexual males, and African American heterosexual males in particular," allowed Willis to do his job so that she could clean up the "lax employment practices," and "then thereafter make false accusations against him, scapegoating him, and terminating his employment," the complaint says.

In March 2011, Willis finished his probationary period as senior manager of the non-discrimination division. He'd completed his assigned tasks and performed competently, but Sparks extended his probationary period without any explanation "and in retaliation for his having made complaints of timecard fraud in the workplace," the court document says.

The filing points to an April 2010 Bay Area Reporter article published before Willis's hiring where Sparks said she'd like to see "an LGBT person head up that whole division," referring to the position then held by Willis, as "direct evidence of [her] sexual-orientation discriminatory and retaliatory motive."

Willis claims that Sparks made false accusations that he had acted without her knowledge or consent, that he was biased against LGBTs, and that Willis was "incompetent" at his work. The complaint also says that on several occasions Sparks instructed Willis "to engage in preferential treatment" of LGBTs for employment at the agency, despite Willis's protestations.

Sparks discharged Willis from the agency in August 2011. Just over two weeks later, he filed a discrimination claim against the city. Days later, on September 20, he accepted a reinstatement offer from the Department of Human Resources as an equal employment opportunity program specialist.

However, the complaint says, "This letter also stated that effective November 18, 2011, Willis is laid off ... due to lack of funds and lack of work available in the General Services Agency."

Through the lawsuit, Willis is seeking relief including general damages, back pay, and punitive damages.

Sparks declined to comment. Melissa Soto, who's with Smith Patten, the firm representing Willis, said they couldn't speak about the case. Brinkin didn't immediately respond to an interview request regarding Willis's case.

Jennifer Johnston, chief of policy for the Department of Human Resources, said Callahan wasn't available Monday and wouldn't be able to comment on the pending litigation.

However, Johnston said, "Mr. Willis was treated fairly and in accordance with city policy and local, state, and federal law."

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