The lawsuit, filed by federal labor watchdogs the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleges that the city in 2013 passed over four women in their 40s and 50s who came away with the top scores in a panel review of applicants. Williams instead hired Rachelle Currie, who was 39 at the time, giving her a base pay of $95,000 a year.
In December 2012, a three-member panel consisting—then-Milpitas planning director Steve McHarris, the city of Menlo Park’s Eren Romero and the city of Santa Clara’s Yvonne Galetta—rated applicants on a 100-point scale. Carmen Valdez, Milpitas’ human resources director, kept time. A score of 80 to 89 was considered well qualified.
The panel gave Currie a score of 82.33—a decent rating, but lower than four older women with more experience. Rhonda Anderson, 55, scored 91.33. Felia Toleafog, 42, scored 87.33. Margaret Espinoza, 57, got an 89. And Rosvida Galinda Penas, 58, finished the test with a score of 84.2.
Months later, Williams hired Currie but, according to the EEOC, failed to give a valid reason for choosing her over higher-scoring counterparts.
Another employee, office specialist Lori Casagrande, filed a complaint with the EEOC, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws against discrimination based on race, religion, sex or age.
The federal commission agreed that Milpitas had violated the law and tried to work out a settlement agreement. Those negotiations hit a dead end in February, so the EEOC filed a lawsuit this past month in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.
Walnut Creek-based attorney Chris Diaz, who represents Milpitas after the city fired its in-house attorney Mike Ogaz earlier this year, said the city has received the complaint and is in the process of reviewing it.
"We cannot comment further at this time," he noted.
The suit seeks monetary damages for Anderson, Toeafog, Penas and Rosvida, as well as injunctive relief to prevent future age discrimination. It doesn’t name Casagrande as a claimant because she filed a private claim alleging violations of state law for being laid off despite having seniority over Currie.
“Older workers continue to face discrimination based on age due to negative stereotypes and inaccurate assumptions about their abilities,” EEOC attorney Jonathan Peck said in a statement. “It is important for employers to ensure that such stereotyping does not impact a person’s ability to be employed. Employment decisions must be based on merit, not age.”
Some 23 percent of all EEOC charges filed in the US last year related to age discrimination, according to the agency’s San Francisco district director William Tamayo.
“It is important that employers not ignore the value that older workers can bring to their workforce,” he said.
In a separate lawsuit filed in May in Santa Clara County Superior Court, Casagrande claims the city violated state age discrimination laws.
An office specialist for the city from 2001 to 2012, Casagrande said her co-workers and supervisors affirmed that she performed her job well. Then, in May 2012, the city gave her a pink slip.
“The city told plaintiff that reassignment was not an option,” the lawsuit states. “At the time, the City Clerk’s Office employed an office specialist who had less seniority than [Casagrande], Rachelle Currie.”
Casagrande filed a formal complaint that summer with the city, challenging Williams’ decision to keep Currie and give her a higher salary than a more experienced candidate. Months later, in September 2012, she told the EEOC about her case, which prompted the commission to look for other cases within the city.
Milpitas has repeatedly come under scrutiny over personnel issues, including its high turnover and an abusive work environment.
In April, McHarris—the planning director named in the suit—filed a personnel complaint against Williams after finding a job with the city of San Jose.. McHarris put in his one-month notice, but left long before those weeks were up.
Valdez, who was also named in the lawsuit, retired a month early this spring after three decades with the city. She was the latest in a long line of department heads to leave. Several cited problems with Williams’ temper.
Ogaz, the city attorney, was forced out under the guise of saving money. But according to sources at City Hall, his ouster had more to do with a dispute with Williams.
This story has been updated.