Age discrimination, threats, retaliation, and more alleged in lawsuit against Moss Point and its mayor

Age discrimination, threats, retaliation, and more alleged in lawsuit against Moss Point and its mayor

MOSS POINT, Miss. (WLOX) - A 27-page lawsuit filed last week against the City of Moss Point and Mayor Mario King lists multiple allegations against the mayor. Namely among those is the accusation that he discriminates against older employees in an effort to force them to resign so he can hire millennials.

The plaintiffs in the case are 11 people who are mostly former and current employees of the city. Each of them say they were retaliated against, threatened, intimidated and/or discriminated against by King at some point since he was voted into office.

Most shocking among the allegations are reports of King using a gun to threaten employees at city hall, saying older employees should “simply die or retire,” using his position to receive luxury trips and cars, and using the living quarters at the fire station as a “motel.”

WLOX contacted King Tuesday, who vehemently denied the allegations and said he was not worried about a lawsuit.

“I have no fear, no concern as it relates to the city, my job, or anybody I have recommended to be hired since my administration," said King. “This city of Moss Point has a culture that has been embraced for years, for decades, and we just can no longer get by like that."

Named in the complaint are the following: Jacqulyn Davis, Scotty Montague, Franklin Vance, Stephanie Coleman, Willie Nettles, Chadwick Smith, David and Misti Eaker, Windell Ashford, Shirley Joseph, Felicia Yearwood and Tommy Posey.

Of those, 11 are former and/or current employees who filed EEOC complaints against Moss Point in January 2019 accusing the city and the mayor of age discrimination. Even though the EEOC reported no violations by the city, those employees maintain that they were discriminated against.

Daniel Waite with Johnson, Ratliff & Waide, PLLC - the firm that is representing all of the plaintiffs - tells WLOX that EEOC findings are typically not allowed as evidence in trials.

“The EEOC did not find that there were no violations by the City of Moss Point,” explained Waite in an email to WLOX. "Rather, as the EEOC does in a majority of cases, the EEOC checked a box on a form which read:

‘The EEOC issues the following determination: Based upon its investigation, the EEOC is unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes. This does not certify that the respondent is in compliance with the statutes. No finding is made as to any other issues that might be construed as having been raised by this charge.’

The EEOC simply cannot fully investigate every complaint they receive, which is why these often end up in Court," he continued. "In cases like this, the EEOC simply request a response from the City and a reply from the Employee, and then almost always issues the same letter in every case.”

Now, in a lawsuit filed July 2, the former employees are accusing King and the City of Moss Point of various allegations.

But King, who has served as mayor since July 2017, says he’s an unapologetic change agent, which is what the city needed.

“When I took over the City of Moss Point, it was in dire need of structure, in dire need of true politics and an understanding of excellence," he explained. “My goal when I first came in here was not to just reinvent, but reinvent and establish trust between constituents and how the city spends money, manages their grants, manages their employees. With that, I’m an unapologetic change agent.”

Allegations

It all goes back to King’s campaign for mayor, according to the plaintiffs, who say he ran for mayor on the platform that he would bring in younger people to work in Moss Point despite not having the authority to make those personnel decisions. Once he was elected, the plaintiffs say the atmosphere changed for older workers.

According to the lawsuit, King proceeded to force or coerce some employees into making comments about other employees that were false and defamatory. Plaintiffs say King’s goal was to convince the board of alderman to take adverse actions against them by lowering their salaries or transferring them to other departments.

In addition, the lawsuit claims the mayor tried to eliminate jobs, so he could receive an increase in pay. When the board of alderman refused to terminate those positions, the mayor reportedly said he “would simply harass the employee until they quit". That happened multiple times until some people were forced to quit, say the plaintiffs.

According to King, it’s standard practice for people to reapply for jobs

“Before I came, most mayors in the form of government I have, they usually eliminate positions and make employees reapply for job," he explained. "There was only one position I was concerned about and it involved our budget because our budget had such a deficit so I didn’t feel comfortable with that individual. For other employees, I wanted to learn the work they were doing and look at their high points and utilize them in positions where they can best be used.”

The lawsuit also notes that the board of alderman has allowed the mayor to operate the city without their oversight, adding that at least one alderman has taken action against the mayor. That citation is a reference to the lawsuit filed by alderman Ennit Morris against King accusing the mayor of multiple constitutional violations related to his administrative duties.

Some of the other allegations the lawsuit makes against King include:

  • The mayor has sought to use his position to intimidate employees for the benefits of himself, his friends and family in and around the city of Moss Point.
  • The mayor has misused city resources, despite demands from state agencies that he cease the activity, and he has punished city employees who reported the misuse to state agencies.
  • The mayor has used his position for personal gain by obtaining benefits from private entities, such as luxury vehicles, gifts, and other benefits not available to ordinary city employees and citizens.

Since the EEOC returned its report in May saying no violations had been found, the plaintiffs who are still employed by the city say they have been subjected to retaliation, suspension, and reprimands by the mayor, which included King falsely accusing those current workers of insubordination and low work quality.

In that EEOC report, it was noted that the city has other employees over the age of 40 who are not millennial-age. However, the lawsuit states that many of the employees referred to in that EEOC report have been harassed by King but haven’t filed formal complaints out of fear of retaliation. The lawsuit also says there are other city workers who are the mayor’s “yes employees” and don’t question any of King’s requests, even if it is an unlawful one.

King maintains that the city does not discriminate against its employees and says the ability to hire or fire is ultimately out of his hands.

“We value any and all applicants that apply for jobs. However, we take the most qualified applicants. We embrace all ethnicities, races, ages, genders," said King. “We don’t discriminate. We’re an equal employment opportunity agency and we believe in diversion and inclusion here. However, as mayor, I can only make recommendations. The board of alderman is the sole responsible party for all hiring, firing, and interviewing of candidates. As mayor, I can only implement the things they put into place.”

Weapons and threats at City Hall

The plaintiffs allege that the mayor violated their constitutional rights on multiple occasions, including accusations that he even pulled a gun on one employee at city hall.

Despite having a no-weapons policy in city buildings for anyone who is not law enforcement, King reportedly wore a weapon to city hall more than once, said the complaint.

Plaintiffs accuse King of violating employees’ Second Amendment rights through that policy, which also alleges, “On at least one occasion the mayor has drawn his firearm and used the firearm to intimidate and harass an employee." The complaint did not state which employee was reportedly threatened with a weapon.

King responded to that allegation: “We do have a no-gun policy. A person has to have an additional enhanced permit to carry indoors. There are enough police (at city hall) to protect me so I do not need to carry a weapon inside city hall".

According to the lawsuit, the mayor carrying a weapon infringed upon the employees’ Fourteenth Amendment right, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

Violation of constitutional rights

Three workers employed at the city’s fire department - Eaker, Posey and Montague - are included as plaintiffs in this lawsuit. They say the mayor singled them out despite not having any reason to do so, ordering them not to fly a Confederate flag. The firefighters all claim they had no previous association with confederate emblems of any kind but were singled out because they are white.

While King did not comment specifically on the accusations by the firefighters, he did maintain his long-held stance on the Confederate flag.

“The history of the Confederate flag is demeaning to the constituent base in Moss Point. I’m not sure as a leader, how as a state we are still discussing this as a topic of equity based on the history of the Confederate flag," he said. "It is not only derogatory and a negative symbol, which creates a hostile and unwelcome environment for African Americans. It is a consistent reminder of the history, the negative history, that affects not just a percentage of Moss Point’s culture, but all of it in a negative way.”

In addition, the three fireman say King ordered them not to post anything on Facebook, even though none of them ever had any issues or complaints regarding social media use. All of these acts infringed upon both their First Amendment rights to free speech and their Fourteenth Amendment rights, according to the lawsuit.

Retaliation against employees

Stephanie Coleman, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, worked for the city before King was elected mayor. She said she reported to the local democratic party prior to the election that King was not eligible to run for mayor because he was not a current resident of Moss Point. The democratic party ignored her complaints, she said, but King targeted her once he was sworn in as mayor. After reportedly telling Coleman she needed to be careful who she talked to, the mayor became increasingly hostile towards her, says the complaint.

He then told other employees to make false allegations against her to try and get her fired, said Coleman. After making several complaints about his harassment towards her and how his behavior was affecting official city business, Coleman said she was reprimanded.

The mayor reportedly went to the board of alderman during executive session two times asking that Coleman be fired but the board refused. In August 2018, the board agreed to lower Coleman’s salary by $16,000 at the mayor’s request, despite having her take on additional duties due to a smaller staff. Coleman said she could afford to take the pay cut but told the board she was resigning because they refused to provide any protection or assistance for employees who were continually harassed by the mayor.

Another long-tenured employee with the city, Felicia Yearwood, worked as a grant writer for Moss Point. The complaint says Yearwood became aware of the mayor harassing Dina Singh, another employee for the city. After writing a statement detailing the harassment of Singh, Yearwood said the mayor harassed her up until her last day, physically intimidating her and ordering her not to speak to Singh at all.

Age discrimination

The plaintiffs, who are all over the age of 40 except for Coleman, claim King made many derogatory remarks about the city’s older employees, including saying it would be easier if the older employees would “simply die or retire.” It was a constant push by King to remove all “non-millennial” employees from city positions, according to the complaint.

King denied allegations of age discrimination and refused to comment specifically on any personnel issues named in the lawsuit. However, he did speak about his expectations for city employees.

“If you are an employee with Moss Point, employees need to be engaged, dedicated to the mission of the city and be able to contribute," said the mayor. “If you can’t contribute, then this is not the place for you. There is no lawsuit, there are no comments, there is no story that is going to stop me from expecting excellence from people I know can provide it, which is our employees. We have awesome employees, and it’s unfortunate that these stories that come out create a negative vibe for them. My job overall is to continue to maintain the strength and equity that I see displayed amongst the employees that are here. That’s our focus."

The plaintiffs also allege King was attempting to force them and other older employees to retire, resign or be terminated. One example given of that is an email reportedly sent by the mayor to his staff that included the line: “If you are in a place where you are no longer able to perform, you are getting angry, taking medication because of work, developed high blood pressure, or your job is a burden to you, it is time to make a tough decision.”

Other specific examples of age discrimination are in the complaint about each of the plaintiffs, who allege the following:

  • Windell Ashford was replaced by a millennial in the human resources department then moved to a secretarial/customer service position. Once she was moved into that position, she was told that job was no longer needed and that she needed to retire. The mayor reportedly referenced Ashford specifically, saying she was “too old” and had “been there too long.” She was replaced and forced to resign.
  • Willie Nettles is a building inspector for the city, who claims he was constantly harassed by the mayor due to his age. King would reportedly remove items from his desk, take away his computer, reassign him to different jobs, increase the physical workload he was required to do, and tell other employees that Nettles should be watched because “he steals." Nettle is still employed with the city and has reported the harassment multiple times to the board of alderman but no action has been taken.
  • Chad Smith was the superintendent of the parks and recreation department, who said he was forced to resign after repeated harassment from the mayor. On more than one occasion, the mayor reportedly commented that Smith did not fit King’s “vision” for the city in hiring millennials. Smith said the mayor began changing his work requirements, taking away his supervisory role, and forcing him to do more manual labor.
  • Shirley Joseph managed the city’s Pelican Landing facility since 2001. She was forced to resign after reportedly suffering harassment from the mayor that included demeaning her and embarrassing her in front of other employees. Joseph reports she was moved to another position where she had no experience or training after King was elected. Despite that, she says she adapted and did her job. King would reportedly tell other employees that Joseph was “worthless, old and dried up,” was not technical enough, and that he wanted her gone.
  • David Eaker, Franklin Vance, Scott Montague and Tommy Posey: All four men are or were long-time employees for the fire department who say the mayor tried to lower their salaries, made multiple disparaging remarks about their age, tried to alter the payment structure to force their resignation, and even tried to remove the fire department from the city government’s control. During staff meetings with fire department employees, the plaintiffs said the mayor has openly stated that older employees should be done away with and repeatedly asked Chief Posey to retire. Posey eventually announced his retirement in May 2019, after much discussion and uproar in the board of alderman meetings. Montague was appointed as interim chief after Posey retired. Montague said after a conversation where the mayor yelled at him, he accepted the position as interim chief. One hour later, Montague said he was suspended by the mayor for insubordination. Vance said he was also suspended by the mayor following the EEOC report that was filed against the city.
  • Jacqulyn Davis said she initially didn’t experience any issues with the mayor until King learned that she was over the age of 40 and had a daughter. Immediately upon hearing that, Davis reported experiencing a more hostile work environment. Soon after, the mayor tried to have her position eliminated and her pay lowered. The board has, so far, refused to follow the mayor’s request, causing King to reportedly say that if the position was not terminated, he would simply harass the employee until the employee quits. Since the EEOC report was filed earlier this year, Davis said the mayor has increased her workload, altered her job responsibilities, denied her training opportunities, and reprimanded her for insubordination and poor work performance.

Misty Eaker

Plaintiff Misty Eaker is not a city employee but is the wife of battalion chief David Eaker, who is employed with the fire department. She has requested documents and made complaints about the mayor’s conduct and raised issues over the city’s refusal to submit to her public information requests for official budget reports and other public documents. Mrs. Eaker claims King has repeatedly slandered her, even taking to social media to try and provoke her and her husband into a confrontation.

The mayor also reportedly called the police on Mrs. Eaker to report her for stalking after she drove by his house and called attention to a city vehicle reportedly being used when it wasn’t supposed to be.

Mrs. Eaker also reported inappropriate behavior from the mayor, saying he used the living quarters at the fire department as his personal motel, staying in the bedroom overnight with a woman who is not his wife.

Abuse of power and misappropriation of city funds

The claim alleges that, despite constantly complaining that the city does not have enough money in its budget, the mayor has consistently tried to increase his own salary and benefits package, including lavish and expensive trips made at the taxpayers' expense.

The lawsuit also states King has misspent, misappropriated and unlawfully expended taxpayer funds and resources. Some of the ways the mayor has done that, according to plaintiffs, are as follows: requiring city employees to work on private events while being paid by city funds, using city employees and interns as personal drivers, using city vehicles for personal use, taking taxpayer-funded trips for personal gain, expanding contracts and projects based on benefits received from private companies, and misusing grant monies.

“Our legal team can deal with the petty, partisan politics of this. As mayor, I will continue to hold each and every individual accountable for their duties, including myself, and expect excellence from them all," said King. “Lastly, the City of Moss Point is not an employment agency. We are a service agency. Our job is to provide the best services possible with the leanest staff we can, providing good customer services, excellent services, and enhancing the quality of life for our key stakeholders, which are our residents."

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