Five former employees of Metro’s track inspection department are suing the agency, saying they were wrongfully terminated as part of an investigation into falsified inspection records.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that Metro had no evidence that the workers — two track walkers, two supervisors, and one maintenance manager — committed any wrongdoing. Instead, the workers’ lawyers argue, Metro officials sought to blame rank-and-file workers, who are predominantly black, and protect higher-ranking officials within the agency.
“Senior WMATA officials, who are predominantly Caucasian, willfully neglected job functions, including but not limited to, maintenance oversight and approval of safety measures, but were not disciplined,” the lawsuit alleges. “Instead, trackwalkers and other Inspection Department employees, who are predominantly African-American, were targeted for discipline as scapegoats for issues that resulted from the willful neglect of senior WMATA officials.”
The workers are suing Metro on one count of racial discrimination and one count of a hostile work environment. They are seeking damages from the transit agency, as well as back pay from the time that they were fired.
“We are unable to comment on active or pending litigation,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
The lawsuit comes three months after Metro officials announced they had fired, suspended or disciplined more than half the agency’s track inspection department as part of an investigation into inspection records that officials believed had not been accurately completed. That investigation came in response to the derailment of a Silver Line train near East Falls Church last July. The derailment was attributed to deteriorated rail ties that failed to keep the tracks from spreading too far apart.
At the time that the firings were announced, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said there “were systemic issues we were having in that department.” He said that many of the firings were not directly related to the section of the tracks where the derailment occurred.
But the workers’ lawsuit alleges that the wrongdoing came from upper-level management, who they say berated workers for taking tracks out of service due to safety defects. The workers tried to warn their managers about worsening conditions on the tracks or call attention to the problems, attorneys said, but their warnings were not heeded.
Metro’s conclusion that workers had filled out inspection reports without properly performing inspections was “completely fraudulent, and had absolutely no basis in fact,” the lawyers allege.
“It was widely known that senior WMATA officials would target trackwalkers for disciplinary action whenever they imposed legitimate speed restrictions to reduce the speed of trains for safety reasons, despite the fact that this was an essential function of a trackwalkers’ job,” the lawsuit said.
Additionally, the lawyers added, “Inspections Department employees were often punished and labeled as incompetent if they elected to restrict train speed.”
The lawsuit argues that these kinds of retaliatory actions targeted African American workers, and were usually performed by white managers. The five plaintiffs, who are all black, say they were verbally harassed by managers. The lawsuit also points out that, of the 21 people terminated by Metro in the aftermath of inspection report investigation, all but two were black.
Attorneys for the terminated workers argued that the blame for the July 2016 derailment should have been placed on Metro’s track maintenance department, which they say was aware of the worsening defects on the tracks and the urgent need for repairs.
“The Maintenance Department was fully responsible for the derailment, not the Inspections Department,” the lawsuit said. “WMATA chose to take no corrective or disciplinary action against the Maintenance Department, or senior WMATA officials who supervised the Maintenance Department, for the willful neglect of required track maintenance.”
Once Metro is served with the lawsuit, they will have three weeks to respond.