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Judge rejects gender bias claim against Wallingford

WALLINGFORD — A federal judge has ruled that the town did not discriminate against Mary Lou Pavao, a former draftsperson with the Engineering Department, when she was fired in March 2005.

Pavao, a Wallingford resident, filed a job discrimination lawsuit against the town in February 2008. Pavao claimed she was “discriminated against, and ultimately terminated on March 9, 2005, on the basis of her sex,” according to U.S. District Court Judge Dominic Squatrito’s Jan. 9 decision. Town Engineer John Thompson, who made the decision to fire Pavao, was the subject of her complaint. Pavao also filed several grievances against Thompson while she was still employed by the town.

Termination of employment based on gender is unlawful according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The town, represented by Sheldon Myers of the Kainen, Escalera & McHale law firm in Hartford, argued that Pavao’s termination was based on insubordination. The court upheld the town’s argument, according to Squatrito’s decision, because Pavao could not prove otherwise.

“Although (Pavao) undoubtedly has presented evidence that would support a finding of harsh treatment by her supervisor (John Thompson), no reasonable fact finder could conclude from the evidence in the record that adverse employment action taken against the plaintiff was based on her sex,” Squatrito wrote.

Reached for comment Monday, Pavao said she was not surprised by the outcome considering Wallingford’s “history of winning every court case they have.”

Pavao, who worked with the town for nearly 23 years, said she will not appeal the court’s decision because she can’t afford it. She represented herself in the case to save money. Pavao said her finances are stretched because she spent $18,000 pursuing a sexual discrimination complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in 2000 that was ultimately dismissed.

“I couldn’t do it again,” she said. “It’s a lot of stress.”

Thompson said Monday he was unaware of the status of the case.

“The courts ruled based on whatever evidence was presented, and such is the case,” he said.

Thompson has been the subject of several formal employee complaints since he was hired in 1997. According to the court’s decision, when Thompson was hired, he was given the mandate to “straighten out some of the lax procedures in the Engineering Department.”

The mandate, along with Thompson’s “aggressive and demanding management style,” resulted in conflicts and confrontations between Thompson and some employees within the Engineering Department, wrote Squatrito. But while Squatrito paints Thompson as a heavy-handed manager, “the evidence demonstrates that Thompson treated male employees he supervised in a similarly harsh manner,” Squatrito said.

Thompson said Monday his style of management has never changed.

“I run a fairly tight operation,” he said. “My expectations apply uniformly to every employee. There is no discrimination, because I treat everybody the same.”

Immediately after her termination, Pavao — at the time a member of a municipal union — filed a grievance with the town. An arbitrator determined that the town had just cause to terminate Pavao, citing a “long and determined campaign to refuse to obey instructions, refuse to cooperate in completing the work of the department.”

The result of this campaign, said the arbitrator, who was quoted in Squatrito’s decision, was a “drain on the resources of the city with hours spent by the grievant, by Mr. Thompson, by the union officials, and by others, attempting to persuade the grievant to stop arguing and do her job.”

The court decision shows that Pavao was suspended by Thompson on nine occasions. He also filed written warnings and non-disciplinary memos over her performance. Between 2000 and 2005, Thompson issued more than 30 memos, verbal and written warnings, and suspensions to Pavao. But, Squatrito said, between February 1998 and August 2004, Thompson also took disciplinary actions against three male employees.

In 1998, after filing several grievances alleging that Thompson’s conduct was creating a hostile work environment, a male employee retired as part of the resolution of those grievances, Squatrito wrote. At the time, Thompson was suspended for a week because he denied an employee union representation during a disciplinary meeting. Thompson fired another male employee in 2001 due to insubordinate behavior. In 2003, Thompson wrote two memos criticizing another male employee’s work ethic. That employee resigned in 2004.

The relationship between Thompson and Pavao was contentious, Squatrito said. According to Squatrito’s decision, Public Works Director Henry McCully characterized their relationship as “the neverending labor issues between Mary Lou Pavao and John Thompson.”

After her CHRO complaint was dismissed, Pavao filed another complaint with the town in February 2002, according to Squatrito’s decision. Among other things, Pavao claimed that Thompson embarrassed and humiliated her by forcing her to stay in her work chair and telling another employee to watch her.

According to Squatrito, Personnel Director Terrence Sullivan found that Thompson’s actions resulted in “embarrassment, anger and frustration” by Pavao and several other employees in multiple departments. As a result, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. issued Thompson a written warning stating that further mistreatment would result in further discipline.

On Feb. 10, 2005, Thompson suspended Pavao for not following his order to move files from her work area to where they belonged. Instead, the court decision states, she was making copies so that she could keep her original work on file. Subsequently, Pavao was fired by Thompson on March 9, 2005.

Pavao said Monday she was not the only person in Town Hall looking to file a lawsuit against Thompson. Others decided to wait and see what happened with her case, Pavao said.

“I wish there was some way someone could do something,” she said, adding that Thompson’s management style “really hurts people.”

Pavao said she had no regrets about bringing a lawsuit against the town.

“If I didn’t try I would have felt worse,” she said.

aragali@record-journal.com (203) 317-2224 Twitter: @Andyragz



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