Darrell Fletcher, 54, said the racial harassment, including being called racial slurs, started soon after he joined the bureau that administers and maintains the public water and wastewater systems in Howard County in October 2018.
Fletcher, who is Black, said that the harassment from his white counterparts began when they found out he was hired as a Level II Utility Worker and assumed it was because he was related to a supervisor at the time, George Gibson, who is also Black. The two were not related.
The harassment continued to escalate until he got into a fight with two coworkers who weren’t disciplined, though he was, Fletcher said. He was put on medical leave for mental health reasons related to the harassment on the job and eventually fired.
A jury was selected Monday for the case in Howard County Circuit Court, the beginning of what is expected to be an eight-day trial.
The lawsuit named Matthew O’Connell, one of Fletcher’s supervisors, Jesse King, Mike Fisher, Brandon Blankenship, Joel Knopfmacher, Robert Buck, and Robert Campbell, as those who harassed Fletcher.
Tsega Girma, the senior assistant county solicitor at the Howard County Office of Law, declined Monday to comment on the case, given the pending litigation.
Court filings show Howard County argues that “culture issues” predate Fletcher’s employment by decades and he “strives mightly” to show he personally dealt with race-based harassment severe enough that it prevented him from doing his work. The county also argues that they responded “promptly” and “reasonably” when Fletcher made his complaints.
Fletcher had only been with the bureau for a total of 10 months.
By December 2018, Fletcher was promoted to a Utility III position after the job became open, according to court documents. Although Fletcher had been on probation since he was recently hired, an internal email showed he was selected to perform the task until the vacancy was filled, and would receive the commensurate pay effective on March 18, 2019.
“They were upset because a lot of them applied for the position. And they’ve been there for years. I overheard one of my white coworkers say, ‘I’m not going to train [with] that n***er, and I’m not going to work with that n***er,” Fletcher said about the time that he had been promoted, in an interview prior to the trial.
Fletcher obtained his GED and took college courses to receive his construction management certification, he said. He also held public works positions for more than a decade in Baltimore, Baltimore County and private industry, where he would repair sewer pipes and storm drains, he said.
“He was given a cubicle at one point as a result of his temporary promotion for the other position. He put up his credentials in his cubicle to try to show people that he had the proper qualifications. And he was told, you know, ‘Oh, look at this N-word. He thinks he’s better than us,’” David Karman, Fletcher’s attorney, said.
The accusations that Fletcher was unqualified for his position by his counterparts was part of the harassment, Karman claims. The lawsuit also alleges that he was assigned less favorable work and working conditions than his white coworkers, including being given the wrong assignments, and that some coworkers refused to be trained by him.
On Feb. 12, 2019, an altercation took place within the bureau’s sewer rig building where an employee physically assaulted Fletcher by getting in his face, putting his hands on his chest and shoving him, according to the lawsuit and interview with Fletcher. He reported the assault to supervisors Gibson and O’Connell, despite feeling threatened by them. According to the lawsuit, King was terminated from the bureau on March 2019 following the assault, but no disciplinary action was taken against O’Connell or Fisher for harassment.
The harassment and discrimination occurred on a regular basis, Karman says. And Fletcher was not the first employee to report such incidents.
“What Darrell went through at his workplace should not have been a surprise to anybody because he’s not the first person that this has happened to. As we’ve learned throughout the time that we’ve been representing him in this case, the Bureau of Utilities in particular has a history of workplace [behavior] that allows racial discrimination and racial harassment to proliferate there,” Karman said.
In 2017, an outside investigator contracted by the Howard County Department of County Administration concluded that racial discrimination had been part of the culture of the bureau for “numerous years” after 23 people had been interviewed, the report shows.
The report also described a “clique” of employees within the bureau that consisted of white males, with the exception of one Black man. They identified as the “Carroll County Boys” and exercised “fear and power over other employees who believe they cannot do anything about the group.”
Girma asked Judge Stephanie Porter not to allow the term the “Carroll County Boys” to be used during the trial because it’s “highly prejudicial”, she said.
“I mean, we’re talking about a work clique. Not an official organization to the extent that this work clique did exist. By listing them here, we would suggest that work clique had a belief that one race is superior to the other,” Girma said.
Porter asked that other examples be included if the term will be used in the questioning for jurors. But ultimately, she decided against using the reference for the accused. She also said the report will not be used as evidence in the trial.
“This report is riddled with hearsay. … It is still perfect to show someone something to determine if it refreshes their recollection or verification issues, but the report itself will not be introduced into evidence. That’s the ruling of the court,” Porter said.
Karman believes there is more than enough evidence to show that Fletcher’s white coworkers were treated more favorably and that there was a history of racist harassment that went unchecked. It was also a direct result of Fletcher being placed on medical administrative leave and eventually let go.
Fletcher has since obtained his CDL license to become a truck driver. He drives over 3,500 miles each week from Hagerstown to Dallas, to provide for his family.
“I worked hard for my credentials. Construction is the work that I wanted to do with my life, especially after seeing my father, grandfather and uncles do the same kind of work. … It was just instilled in me to do, so it hurts that its something that I can no longer do,” Fletcher said, adding that he was unable to receive references from the bureau to get other jobs.
His hope is that when others report similar incidents, people will be held accountable.
“I hope that people will react on grave issues like these and try to solve them before it becomes as serious as mine did,” Fletcher said.