He says Tacoma fired him for discrimination while helping Latino workers. He was awarded $200k

Tony Overman/toverman@theolympian.com
·5 min read

The city settled a lawsuit this week in which a former employee said he was fired due to discrimination and retaliation.

The city paid Keith Armstrong, who was a supervisor in Community & Economic Development from July 2016 to May 2018, $199,000 after the city council voted to settle the August 2020 lawsuit at its meeting Tuesday.

Armstrong, a Black man, alleged his termination was because of his actions to help Latino construction workers who were being discriminated against.

Armstrong was responsible for the growth and development of the city’s Small Business Enterprise and Local Employment and Apprenticeship training program. During his tenure, Armstrong was directed by then-Mayor Marilyn Strickland to attend a Seattle Workers for Justice Coalition meeting on complaints of discrimination from Latino construction workers by their employers, who were sometimes City of Tacoma contractors, Pierce County District Court filings state.

A community tribunal panel that consisted of six workers from two construction companies was created from Armstrong’s efforts. The panel contacted the new mayor, Victoria Woodards, whose administration assistant then contacted Armstrong so she could learn more about the panel. Armstrong notified his supervisor Daniel Murillo, the complaint states.

According to the complaint, Armstrong met with Woodards and his second-level manager, Acting Director Kim Bedier, on Jan. 16, 2018. Armstrong presented underlying facts that led to the group being organized, the actions he had taken in opposing discrimination and promised to follow up with other concerns and questions raised by the mayor concerning the issues of potential discrimination.

Immediately after, Murillo and Bedier gave Armstrong a warning, saying he “violated the chain of command” in contacting elected officials, the complaint states.

The city responded, in its defense, that Armstrong’s supervisor and/or department director advised Armstrong that “his act of bypassing his supervisory chain in contacting elected officials did not meet their performance expectations.”

Armstrong felt the warning was unwarranted and retaliatory. He did not violate city policy because he responded to an inquiry by the mayor’s office and copied his chain of command the same day both orally and in email form, the complaint states.

A mid-level employee contacting elected officials without prior authorization does not violate the city’s policy, but it does not meet management’s expectations, the city’s response stated.

Armstrong also alleged his managers accommodated the wishes of a white subordinate over his legitimate directives to take a city-mandated “Equity 101” class.

Murillo and Bedier instructed Armstrong in early February 2018 not to train or discuss “equity principles” with his staff, the complaint alleges. Later that month, Armstrong’s administration assistant was reassigned, undermining Armstrong’s ability to perform his job, the claim states. His supervisory responsibilities were “temporarily” removed, according to Armstrong’s complaint, which the city denied.

Armstrong was also placed on a Performance Improvement Plan on Feb. 15, 2018, which Armstrong alleged was related to his work with assisting Latino workers with their complaints of discrimination and the complaint about the equity incident.

The PIP stated Armstrong’s deficient areas of contributions were communication, organizational skills, professionalism, quality of work, teamwork and following chain of command, according to a copy of the PIP. The plan noted, “When you feel it is appropriate to speak to the Mayor or council members about programs/business needs, you need to go through the proper chain of command which is your division manager, and then the department director.”

Armstrong filed a complaint with the Tacoma Equal Employment Opportunity Office on Feb. 16, 2018, about the appropriateness of the plan and basis of the adverse action. Armstrong also filed a retaliation complaint with an EEO officer that he was retaliated against because of his efforts to assist the Latino workers and that he had been discriminated against by having his supervisory responsibilities removed.

The complaint alleges that the city took further adverse action against Armstrong by removing his supervisory responsibilities. He filed a second retaliation complaint for this action on April 12, 2018.

Armstrong wrote in the second retaliation charge that he believed the actions of Murillo and Bedier violated the city, state and federal discrimination laws.

“My superior’s actions have essentially hindered my ability to supervise my team and act on behalf of the City of Tacoma,” Armstrong wrote. “The basis of their actions is additional retaliation stemming from my attempts to help Latino construction workers in Pierce County working on city projects in January 2017.”

He wrote that he believed his actions were consistent to the chain of command protocol at the city, and that his superiors’ actions were not for valid reasons but to harm his reputation and ability to do his job.

While Armstrong’s second retaliation charge was being investigated, he was fired May 14. Armstrong was told he was fired because he has worked outside the scope of his job description. He alleged he was never issued any warnings, other than his work he performed regarding efforts to assist Latino workers with their discrimination complaints.

According to an interview with Murillo following Armstrong’s firing, he said lesser discipline was not considered because he “did not feel it would address the problem as there was never an acknowledgment or attempt to change,” court filings said.

Armstrong alleged he suffered a hostile work environment, due to, at least in substantial part, his race, and/or his protected activity, which violates state law against discrimination, and that he suffered from economic losses and emotional distress.

All employment decisions made with respect to Armstrong were undertaken in good faith and in compliance with state and federal law, the city responded.

Any injuries or damages were caused by Armstrong’s own conduct, the city said.

The city and Armstrong agreed to the nearly $200,000 settlement on Aug. 12, according to court documents.