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Former Philly Board of Pensions and Retirement director sues over firing

By Jon Campisi | Oct 14, 2011

A woman who served as the executive director for Philadelphia’s Board of Pensions and Retirement for nearly a decade, earning a salary of more than $100,000 per year, is suing the City Philadelphia for wrongful termination, alleging her firing was related to her race.

City resident Gwendolyn, who is black, and began working for the city in 2002, alleges in her federal complaint that she was terminated from her position because of a culture of discrimination against African Americans at her agency.

The complaint, which also alleges civil rights violations, was filed Oct. 12 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by Philadelphia attorneys James A. Bell, IV and Christopher A. Macey, Jr.

According to the lawsuit, Bell, who earned $115,000 per year in her position as the board’s executive director, initially earned high marks for her accomplishments and the “significant improvements” she made to the organization.

These included instituting a policy to digitize all files, establishing a process for death audits to make sure deceased members were not erroneously issued pension payments, automating pension payroll and pension appointment schedules and assisting in making over 100 enhancements to the pension payroll system and investigating the purchase of a new payroll system, the suit states.

The lawsuit claims that when Bell started her job, there were three other black board members. At the time of her recent firing, however, there was only one African American board member.

The complaint alleges that other employees at the agency often made biased statements toward women, and blacks in particular. One employee, the board’s chief investment officer, once commented that, “All the black women on the 16th floor are incompetent,” the suit states.

Bell was also the subject of the biased remarks, she claims.

“Despite her exemplary record of performance and achievement, Ms. Bell was targeted by The City, which displayed a bias toward Ms. Bell on the basis of her sex and her race,” the lawsuit states.

The suit claims that despite her positive performance record, Bell was “constantly criticized” over minor issues related to her job, and was often blamed for issues she had no control over or no involvement in.

“White male employees of The City who work for the Board have made more egregious, and oftentimes catastrophic mistakes, than Ms. Bell is accused of but are either only mildly reprimanded or not reprimanded at all,” the suit claims.

In August 2009, Bell brought her concerns to the attention of the executive director of the city’s Office of Administrative Review, the suit states, but nothing was ever done to address her grievances.

Then, days after she made her complaints, Bell was placed on a performance review, the suit states. Bell met with the board prior to her December 2009 termination during which she stressed that “I just want to be sure I’m being treated fairly.” It was then that another person at the meeting shouted, “we’re not even gonna go there,” regarding her claims of discrimination.

The board dismissed Bell’s “significant improvement” to the organization and subsequently decided to terminate her, the suit states. The board then appointed a white male to take her place, giving him a salary of $132,000 per year.

According to the lawsuit, the city has continued to display racial bias by recently excluding a number of black staffers from board meetings. At least one other city employee who worked for the board has also filed a claim of race discrimination against the city, the suit claims.

“The City was aware of the discrimination and retaliation suffered by Ms. Bell but failed to take any action to address the situation or prevent further discrimination and retaliation,” the suit states. “The city has encouraged, tolerated, ratified and been deliberately indifferent to a series of actionable patterns, practices and customs relating to training, supervision, investigation and discipline.”

The lawsuit accuses the city of violating the federal Civil Rights Act as well as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Bell seeks declaratory judgment, unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and other court relief.

A jury trial has been demanded.

The federal case number is 2:11-cv-06389-ER.

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