Woodruff faces sex-bias claims

Arts center says it will cooperate with EEOC; lawyer for security company downplays EEOC’s determination

The Woodruff Arts Center said it will “cooperate fully” with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which last week filed a determination that the center and its security contractor had discriminated against seven female security guards who were fired after Woodruff requested that only men be hired to patrol outside the property in late 2007.

According to the EEOC finding, Lisa Harris and six other security guards were fired on or about Oct. 17, 2007, after Woodruff eliminated its “inside roving” patrols and “instructed U.S. Security Associates not to employ females for its outside security detail.”

The security company, in turn, was instructed to assign eight men to replace the female guards, it says.

According to the July 28 determination, the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe the women were discriminated against because of their sex and authorized the women to enter into conciliation discussions with U.S. Security Associates Inc. and Woodruff to resolve the matter. If the parties are unable to reach a settlement, the former employees may file civil complaints in court.

“The Woodruff Arts Center takes allegations of discrimination very seriously,” said Woodruff Communications Manager Kathleen Covington in an e-mail response to the Daily Report. “It is against the policies of the Woodruff Arts Center to discriminate against any individual on the basis of his or her gender. Our investigation is ongoing and we will take appropriate action and fully cooperate with the EEOC.”

The center “is an equal opportunity employer and expects all of its contractors to comply with equal employment opportunity policies and procedures as well,” wrote Covington.

U.S. Security’s attorney, Ford & Harrison partner Frederick L. Warren III, said he had not yet seen the EEOC determinations, but he disputed the women’s accounts in their complaints and downplayed the significance of the commission’s ruling.

“Each of these individuals was offered an alternative assignment; they weren’t terminated, their assignment at the arts center ceased,” he said.

As to the commission’s determination, he said, “this is a non-binding, administrative determination that there may have been a violation. … I’m not sure why this is newsworthy at this point. The EEOC issues these every day.”

Warren said he is discussing how to respond to the EEOC’s determination with his client and did not yet know whether they would participate in the conciliation discussions.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said. “We’ll have to have some dialogue and see if there can be a meeting of the minds. My client does not believe they have engaged in any unlawful conduct.”

Lisa T. Millican of Greenfield Millican, who represents the seven women, responded, “It shocks me that they’re still in denial.

“There’s no dispute about the facts; we have all sorts of documentation. I sincerely doubt all seven of these women are lying.”

She said they were terminated shortly after they had been ordered to train their male replacements as part of a “restructuring” of the center’s security detail.

“All of them were fired in October 2007, all on the same day or within a matter of days,” said Millican. “The contract with U.S. Security was up for renegotiation, and Woodruff says, ‘Hey, we want to replace the female guards with men, we’ll call it a downsizing.'”

Millican points to affidavits from two former U.S. Security human resources officials, both of whom say they were ordered to replace women on the security detail with men. Gregory Boggan, the company’s former human resources manager, said his supervisor told him in early October 2007 that “Woodruff wanted to put security guards outside, but did not want women to be doing outside security.

“He told me to hire the men first, so when we fired the women, we could say it was a reduction in work force.”

When Boggan objected that Woodruff was “putting the company at risk for being sued for discrimination,” he said, he was ordered “to do it anyway because that was what the client wanted.”

Boggan’s deputy, Angela Walker, said that at about the same time, she was told “to ignore female applicants and just look for male applicants.”

“Although numerous qualified women, including current employees” applied, she said, “I was not allowed to consider any of these female applicants or employees for assignment to Woodruff Arts Center.”

Boggan was himself terminated in January 2008 after raising his concerns about the Woodruff firings and unrelated allegations of racial discrimination, according to a subsequent retaliation suit against U.S. Security that settled last year. Walker was appointed to be his replacement at a lower wage and is “entering litigation” with the company, according to Millican.

Even if some of her clients were offered other assignments, Millican said, “You’re still not allowed to take away their assignments because they’re women.”

Millican said she had offered to settle the complaints earlier for $250,000 per plaintiff, but would now insist upon at least $400,000 apiece.

The cap for individual damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is $300,000, she said, plus lost wages and attorneys’ fees.

“If it doesn’t settle within next 30 days through EEOC’s help, we will file a lawsuit and I will have a field day making them understand you can’t fire your employees because of their sex and making sure they adequately compensate my clients,” she said. “Then, they’ll pay my bill as well.”

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