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4 Kansas City Board of Public Utilities employees sue Unified Government alleging racial discrimination

UG building
Posted at 11:43 AM, Jul 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-15 12:43:09-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — Since April 2021, four Black current and former employees of the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities have filed civil lawsuits in federal court alleging racial discrimination against the BPU.

Each case continues to work through the federal court system, as attorneys representing the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County, of which the BPU is a part, and attorneys representing plaintiffs, continue to gather evidence and file motions.

Among the most substantive activity this summer has included a judge overseeing one of the cases denying a motion by attorneys representing the UG to dismiss the case.

Sterling Owens lawsuit

According to a civil lawsuit filed on April 14, 2021, in federal court, Sterling Owens alleges that the UG discriminated against him based on race, retaliated against him and maintained a racially hostile environment.

The allegations center around an investigation conducted by BPU supervisors to determine if Owens lived in Wyandotte County.

In order to work for the BPU, employees must be residents of Wyandotte County.

After receiving a tip that Owens wasn't living in the county, a compliance coordinator began an investigation.

The investigation took place from Aug. 2019 and didn't conclude until Sept. 2020.

Ultimately, the investigation concluded Owens didn't violate the residency requirement.

Owens alleges that the investigation took so long because of his race, among other things.

In Feb. 2022, attorneys representing the Unified Government filed a motion for summary judgment in the case.

In a ruling on June 14, Judge Kathryn H. Vratil denied the motion.

Anthony Garner Jr. lawsuit

In a separate lawsuit, also filed in April 2021 in federal court, Anthony Garner Jr. alleges that BPU discriminated against him because of his race and age.

Garner, who's been working for BPU, applied for a Apprentice Lineman position in March 2020.

During the training, Garner alleges he received disparate treatment.

Eventually, BPU supervisors told him he was not eligible for the apprenticeship because his “speed never improved” and because Plaintiff was not a “confident climber.”

Garner alleges that in 43 years of the apprenticeship program, he was the only person to be kicked off from the training.

On June 1, 2022, attorneys representing the Unified Government filed a motion with Judge Eric F. Melgren seeking a summary judgment in the case.

Earlier this month, attorneys representing Garner filed a memorandum of opposition to the UG's summary judgment motion. Judge Melgren has yet to make a ruling on the motion.

Jovan Ledbetter lawsuit

In a third lawsuit, filed on Nov. 1, 2021 in federal court, Jovan Ledbetter accused BPU of creating a hostile environment that was racially motivated.

Ledbetter was also accepted for the Apprentice Lineman program in 2018.

Months later, he was also kicked out of the program.

He alleges that he was kicked out because his BPU supervisor alleged he “so far behind” in his training. However, Ledbetter said he was improving.

During the training, Ledbetter alleges he was accused of talking on the phone, which he disputed.

After being kicked out of the program, Ledbetter said he was demoted.

In Jan. 2022, Federal Judge Gwynne E. Birzer set a July 1, 2022 mediation deadline for the parties. Additional discovery in the case is ongoing. A final pretrial conference is set for Oct. 26, 2022.

Johnell Walton lawsuit

In a fourth federal lawsuit, this time filed on Nov. 12, 2021, Johnell Walton alleged that he witnessed and experienced discrimination and harassment due to his race.

Walton, who began working for BPU in 2013, was fired in 2020.

He alleges that he was called into meetings with supervisors to discuss his "bad body language" but said non-minorities weren't criticized for such things.

During work calls, he also alleges he was singled out.

On March 18, 2020, Walton took his grandchildren to see the facility on a day he wasn't working.

Walton alleges other white employees had done so before.

On April 7, 2020, Walton was fired for bringing his grandchildren to the facility and for insubordination.

In Feb. 2022, a federal judge set a deadline for parties to complete discovery in the case by Nov. 1, 2022. The court record indicates the parties filed settlement reports in the case, but in a May 2022 review, the judge determined the court-ordered mediation was not likely to be productive at the time.

The final pre-trial conference is set for Nov. 29, 2022.