Former City worker continues 20-year-old lawsuit against Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government

Story and Photos by Patrice K. Muhammad, Editor

On Feb. 11, 1998 Eric Gardner filed a civil lawsuit against his supervisors and former employer, Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, claiming a religious hostile work environment and race-based discrimination after he was passed up for a promotion.

Gardner claims that he experienced a hostile work environment after refusing to sit for prayer before mandatory meetings at his job in solid waste.

The lawsuit explains Gardner’s basis for his claim. According to court filed documents, Gardner was required to attend safety meetings, which began in prayer. Prayers called for by a Black supervisor and prayed by Black co-workers.

Eric stepped outside the room while the prayers were said and stepped back inside once the prayer was over.

“I wasn’t the only one who stepped out,” Gardner said in an interview for this article. Gardner was the Vice President of the Civil Service Employee Association and was being responsive to the complaints of other workers who were not comfortable with the prayer in meetings.

“First, we sat silently during the prayers. Eventually, people started stepping into the hallway,” said Gardner. The supervisors didn’t like the act of dissent.

Gardner still has a copy of the grievance he filed on behalf of the concerned employees. They complained that the prayers were biased, and no one should be made to join in.

The Association ruled, and it was announced in a meeting, that anyone who wanted to, could step out without penalty.

By the time the directive came down, the relationship between Gardner and his direct supervisors were damaged beyond repair. He claimed those in management retaliated against him by denying his promotion.

Despite possessing numerous on-the-job awards and honors, Gardner said he was not given work assignments and had to sit in the employee lounge during some work days and was passed up for a promotion. According to court papers, Eric said he asked about his lack of work casually and his supervisor said that if he was in the right church things might go better for him.

Eric applied and was on the promotion list for the position of Public Service Supervisor (PSS) and was listed as first among the applications based on a ranking system that included years of service, experience and education. Employees from other divisions of the City were also eligible and Eric was still at the top of the list.

But the position wasn’t filled right away. At some point after interviews, an acting Supervisor was appointed.

This was 1998, before most refuse trucks were automated, when garbage couldn’t be collected without getting your hands dirty. When the job was held primarily by proud Black men like the ones Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis to march with 50 years ago but was killed.

Gardner recalls there would be 75-120 people in the morning operation meeting and there were 10 or fewer Caucasians.

“…Steele, the pre-selected white male was illegally appointed to the position of “acting’’ PSS which was not allowed under the ordinances of the Urban County Government.’’, the lawsuit claims.

While in the position, Steele unlawfully issued disciplinary reprimands against Gardner which rendered Gardner ineligible for promotion for one year. Before the year ended, Gardner was fired.

1998 is almost two decades before Colin Kaepernick and a few other National Football League players sat, then went down to one knee, refusing to stand for the National Anthem played before they began their job on the field.

Like Kaepernick of the NFL, Gardner was out of a job. Unable to return to solid waste, he made many applications to other divisions but was unable to find work within city Government.

Gardner has had many jobs, but none would he consider an actual career like he was building in Solid Waste.

The lawsuit went to jury trial in 2003, and the jury sided with the city of Lexington.  Gardner and his attorney William Jacobs appealed.

They won the appeal and a new trial was granted because Judge Sheila Isaac should have recused herself. The judge is first cousins with, then Mayor, Teresa Isaac who was named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with Urban County Government.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals ruled in Gardner’s favor to file an additional claim against the Director of Human Resources at the time due to new claims of evidence tampering and destruction of documents pertinent to the original lawsuit.

Since 2005 Gardner has been waiting for a new trial before Judge Pamela Goodwine.

According to Mr. Gardner, the city finally made him an offer to settle the case last year. Before he could accept or reject the offer, his attorney since 1998, William Jacobs died.

After months of searching for an attorney willing to take on his decades old case that may go to trial, Gardner found Atty. Chris Miller.

July 6th will be Miller’s first appearance before Goodwine to establish representation of Mr. Gardner.

The Key Newsjournal will continue to follow this case.