Discrimination lawsuit against Henrico County to go to trial Monday

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/22/2019, 6 a.m.
Jeanetta Lee is hoping a federal jury will agree with her that Henrico County engaged in racial discrimination in awarding …

Jeanetta Lee is hoping a federal jury will agree with her that Henrico County engaged in racial discrimination in awarding a plum job promotion to a less qualified white man.

Ms. Lee, an African-American woman still employed by the county, has been making that case since April 2017, when Paula Reid, director of the county’s Department of Human Resources, notified Ms. Lee that she did not get the new job.

Ms. Lee complained to the county and to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about being passed over and later filed a federal lawsuit charging the county with racial discrimination. She is seeking $1 million in damages.

Now she is headed to a two-day courtroom showdown with the county. The case, Lee versus Henrico County, is scheduled to begin Monday, March 25, in U.S. District Court in Downtown, with Judge Robert E. Payne presiding.

While the case involves solely her complaint, it also is raising questions about hiring practices in the prosperous suburban county and whether official use methods that enable them to give preference to white candidates while reducing opportunities for African-Americans and minorities.

Ms. Lee works in the county’s Risk Management Division, essentially the county’s insurance office, which is part of Ms. Reid’s department.

As the division’s claims manager, Ms. Lee is involved in assessing and dealing with claims of damage involving the county and with worker compensation claims involving on-the-job injuries to county employees.

Ms. Lee brought more than two decades of experience and knowledge of insurance, claims practices, management and evaluation when she joined the county about three years ago. She applied for the top job in the division when its manager left in 2017.

Henrico advertised for a person with “considerable knowledge of the principles, theories, practices and procedures of risk management” and considerable knowledge of the underlying laws and policies governing worker’s compensation,” which were in Ms. Lee’s wheelhouse, according to her attorney, Christopher E. Brown of Alexandria.

Her competition, Jason Young, served as the division’s safety and environment manager whose job was to investigate accidents to find ways to prevent them in the future. But as Ms. Lee has alleged and the county has acknowledged, Mr. Young had no experience in assessing the county’s liability or dealing with employee injury claims.

Evidence turned up that the county’s recruiter for the position offered to coach Mr. Young before his first interview, according to court documents, while Ms. Lee was not offered such help.

Ms. Lee also has contested county claims that Mr. Young had exposure to more areas within the division and had a higher level of responsibility as safety manager than Ms. Lee, based on Mr. Young’s own statements in a deposition.

For example, Mr. Young was involved in a safety investigation after a child fell through bleachers, but had no role in assessing the county’s liability or the amount that might need to be paid because of the child’s injury, the suit alleges.

In court papers, Mr. Brown also noted that Ms. Lee met the county’s published requirement for having five years of progressive claims management experience, which Mr. Young did not have.

“Having strayed from, in fact ignored, the job listing criteria,” Mr. Brown stated in a court document, “a jury could find that the reason proffered (for rejecting Ms. Lee) is a pretext for discrimination.”