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Massachusetts Court Employees Claim Race Discrimination

Current and former employees have accused the state trial court system of discriminatory practices due to their race. Some workers alleged they were passed over for promotions for white colleagues who were less qualified.

(TNS) — “People are scared to come forward,” said Case Specialist Sharon Rodriguez. “They are worried that they might lose their job if they do.”

Rodriguez sat and spoke of her experiences at the trial court in Springfield, Mass., for over an hour highlighting that she is not the only one to have faced discrimination and a glass ceiling at the court building.

Four current and former employees of the state’s trial court system came forward with their own stories of discrimination in the workplace after reading a MassLive article on former probation officer Garry A. Porter Sr. claiming a workplace atmosphere of passive aggressive racism.

Rodriguez and Norfolk Superior Court Probation Officer Marcia Davis-Garrison have similar experiences with hitting walls, stopping them from progressing in their careers despite spotless records and high education, they told MassLive. They are both people of color. Former Chicopee District Court Officer Dennis A. Lawson Sr. and former Fall River District Court Probation Officer Sheila Mathieu told MassLive that they faced character assassination from senior management and as well as backlash when they tried to highlight their concerns.

A spokesperson for the trial court told MassLive that they are unable to comment on specific personnel but added that all candidates’ experience, knowledge, skills and abilities are considered when looking at promotions and hiring.

Rodriguez struggled to hold back her tears describing the toll the experience is having on her. But, she told MassLive, she wants to stay on at the court because of the people she is able to help in her role.

In 2018, Rodriguez applied for a promotion to associate probation officer at the Springfield District Court. The 9-year veteran of the trial court lost to a colleague that came to the court as av intern in 2017.

She told MassLive that she was shocked and saddened by the decision to promote a person with less experience and less qualified for the position. She believes that it has more to do with her race than it does with selecting the better person for the role.

Rodriguez’s supervisors did, however, notice her reaction to being overlooked.

“A number of her coworkers noted a significant shift in her attitude when she was not hired as an associate probation officer at Springfield District Court and complained of her effect on the day to day atmosphere of the office,” read an email from Brian Mirasolo, field services administrator of the Massachusetts Probation Service, to Heena Trivedi, former administrative attorney at the Office of Court Management on July 27, 2018.

Mirasolo was speaking of Rodriguez, who speaks two languages, has 9 years experience in the court, 2 years at the district attorney’s office and received a master’s degree in 2018. It had been Rodriguez’s dream to help people, she told MassLive.

To become an associate probation officer a candidate must have at minimum an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or 3 years relevant experience in human services, criminal justice or trial court.

In 2013, after working in the district attorney’s office for two years, Rodriguez transferred over to the probation department. A master’s degree graduate and also multilingual, Rodriguez was made the office Cultural Proficiency Champion (CPC) in September 2017.

“[As a CPC] we were expected to try to educate our coworkers on diversity in the workplace. What is OK to say, what is not,” said Rodriguez, who identifies as Afro-Hispanic.

“They weren’t very receptive,” she added, describing other employees in her office.

According to a study by Harvard University on implicit bias, many white Americans demonstrate bias against Black Americans, even if they’re not aware of or able to control it. However, this is changing for the better, the study suggests.

The CPC role was an unpaid position and according to Rodriguez any work as CPC was not to be done within office hours.

“I had applied for an associate probation officer position and I have a bachelor’s in criminal justice and a master’s in cybersecurity management,” Rodriguez said.

Three times she applied for promotion but was turned down. Each time she would receive an email of the decision.

“I was finishing up my master’s and it said, ‘I did not have enough education or experience for an associate probation officer job’,” Rodriguez told MassLive after her first application for promotion.

“It’s not even a probation officer position,” she added.

The job, according to Rodriguez, was given to a white case specialist, who doesn’t speak Spanish and had only graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in 2017. Furthermore, the person who gained the promotion had only been a case specialist for a little over a year.

“There was a high volume of applications received for this very competitive position. Due to the large volume of candidates, we are not able to interview all individuals meeting the minimum qualifications at this time,” read the email Rodriguez received. “Applications and resumes were individually reviewed, focusing on candidates with higher education and relevant experience above the minimum requirements outlined in the job description.”

Rodriguez felt that if she was white she would have walked into the position.

In three years the salary of the employee that was promoted over Rodriguez has gone from $35,000 in 2019, to $49,194 at the end of 2021, according to the state’s open payroll. Whereas Rodriguez, after 9 years as a case specialist, will be paid $45,264 for 2021.

Rodriguez told MassLive that Chief Probation Officer Dan Delaney expressed to her that he was surprised at the promotion.

She went on to point out that Delaney didn’t know that she had gained a master’s degree.

“When I spoke to [Delaney] about it, he said that it’s because she was an intern,” Rodriguez said.

Mirasolo spoke to Rodriguez over the phone in July 2018, he recommended the chief probation officer at the time, Terrence O’Neal, “clear the air on the subject.”

Rodriguez flatly denies that this was the case and emailed Office of Compliance and Investigations Director Margaret Peterson Pinkham stating just that.

“I believe both Terry O’Neil and Brian Mirasolo’s inaction were discriminatory and is indicative of not being afforded the opportunity to advance my career despite my tenure and credentials,” Rodriguez wrote in the email.

According to a spokesperson for the trial court, associate probation officers are currently selected by a statewide job posting managed by the trial court’s human resources department.

Applicants are then screened by the Office of Court Management to reduce the candidate pool to a few hundred individuals. Everyone in the screened applicant pool is interviewed by the same panel.

Every candidate is asked the same behaviorally-based interview questions, the trial court spokesperson told MassLive. They added that the interviews are then scored by each panelist and applicants are ranked by overall interview score.

The Interview Guide provides panelists with scoring criteria. Interview questions are scored based upon the knowledge, skills and abilities applicants reflect in their responses.

Reference checks are completed and a personnel team in the Office of the Commissioner of Probation uses the list to make job offers to candidates in ranked order when associate probation officer openings occur in the region of interest identified by applicants.

A Spotlight investigation into the probation department’s personnel showed that Delaney, Mirasolo and O’Neil all had personal connections to court officials or gave at least $500 to state legislators since 2002.

All three have received promotions since the report was published.

‘White People Pick White People’

For 32 years State Rep. Bud L. Williams served as a probation officer at the Springfield District Court. He told MassLive that during his time he saw the glass ceiling for people from a Black or Hispanic background first hand and knew that if he hadn’t left the job at the courts, his career would be in the doldrums.

Williams retired from the trial court in 2008.

“I’m not making any aspersions but ducks, pick ducks. White people, pick white people,” Williams said to MassLive on Aug. 30.

The state representative described a privileged group that hires from within their own social circles.

As he spoke of the treatment he received at the district court, Williams told MassLive it makes him upset. He’s angrier still that discrimination remains an issue.

“I got a call two, three months ago from a person I worked with that got jumped [for promotion],” said Williams. “She’s a probation officer, she’s been there a while. She’s bilingual.”

Unlike in the ‘70s when Williams worked at the courts, he said that the bias is much more covert today.

“[People in New England] are much more progressive. They’re much more liberal,” said Williams. “But when it comes down to hiring people and sharing economic wealth, that’s missing.”

Williams highlighted that some Black communities in the state have much lower average incomes than white communities. The racial inequity in Massachusetts is still a challenge. The bias, unconscious or otherwise is still present, just not addressed as it should be, Williams said.

“[Politicians] are great at talking and passing laws and making speeches and [the Black community] did get some gains, but the economic gains are not there,” said Williams. “Not the hiring practices, not economic development, not housing. That discrimination still exists. Racism still exists. Sexism still exists and this is loud and clear.”

He added that it is more covert in Massachusetts than in other states, but it is very much part of Black and Hispanic people’s everyday existence.

Others Have Come Forward

A total of six employees of the trial courts came forward after reading MassLive’s story on former Probation Officer Garry Porter citing discrimination in the workplace.

Those speaking to MassLive allege that even when Black or Hispanic people are promoted, the environment is hostile and uncomfortable.

“I have not only observed the disparate treatment but have now become a victim of this disparate treatment,” said Marcia Davis-Garrison, union steward and probation officer at the Norfolk Superior Court.

Davis-Garrison started her career at the Norfolk Probate and Family Court in March 1997, and with the encouragement of her chief, she interviewed to make her position as a probation officer permanent.

On March 30, 1998, she started at the Norfolk Juvenile Court as a probation officer.

The 24-year veteran told MassLive that her high school background was a deciding factor in her obtaining her first position at the county’s probate and family court, because “we were considered the prestigious Black people.” This was done, she said, to meet quotas that the state had set for the department.

Two decades after becoming a probation officer she realized that promotion beyond her current position, would be off the table for her.

Davis-Garrison worked as a probation officer getting an education and taking on extra, unpaid, responsibilities to make herself more promotable for over two decades.

“I had a stellar record. Never any discipline issues,” said Davis-Garrison. “It just so happens, before I go for this interview, I end up getting written up. I’m like, wait a minute, what am I getting written up for?”

She was told that one of her pre-trial probationers, who had been arrested for human trafficking, indecent assault and battery, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, had been arrested again after he was discovered to be setting women up in a hotel to be prostituted.

The Norfolk Superior Court said in the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) complaint that this was due to Davis-Garrison not verifying his employment and checking that he was following the guidelines of his probation.

Davis-Garrison filed an MCAD complaint over the written warning and its timing.

An MCAD is a complaint that has to be filed within 300 days of the incident and it consists of a statement from both the employee that is filing the complaint and the employer.

“You’re telling me he got rearrested because I didn’t get a pay stub?” asked Davis-Garrison, frustrated at recounting the memory. “So, they decided that that deserved to go in my personnel file.”

Davis-Garrison told MassLive that the timing of the written warning being entered into her otherwise spotless record was not only anger-inducing but suspicious.

“So, wait a minute, after 20 years of service, you’re putting this in my personnel file just before I go for this interview?” Davis-Garrison recounted when she was told of the infraction in December 2018.

Allison Connolly, who had been a probation officer since 2007 was promoted to the role.

Connolly was part of a controversial story that ran in 2014 looking at then- Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Coakley’s spokesman, Brad Puffer, told The Boston Herald that Connolly is the daughter of a “longtime friend and neighbor.”

Puffer goes on to say that Coakley knew Connolly since she was a child and “felt that she was qualified for the position.”

The article also states that Connolly donated $100 to Coakley in April 2005 while Coakley was Middlesex district attorney.

“She was known for her extra community work like I am. Everything between us was equal,” said Davis-Garrison. “The obvious differences were; she’s a white woman, she didn’t get written up and she was sponsored by Martha Coakley.”

Davis-Garrison filed a grievance on the written warning and was represented at the grievance hearing by her Union President Margaret Thompson.

“The grievance process demonstrated that not only did I verify the defendant’s employment, I received a copy of his pay card in September and received a pay stub in November, immediately after his arrest,” Davis-Garrison stated.

The written warning was upheld when the hearing officer found there was just cause and denied the grievance, according to court documents.

When a probation officer applies for promotion to assistant chief probation officer, their application is considered by a four-person panel comprised of the first justice or a regional administrative justice if at the superior court, the regional or statewide probation supervisor, the chief probation officer and a veteran assistant chief probation officer.

Throughout her career, she had been a model probation officer and had volunteered to become a National Association of Government Employees (NAGE) union steward, a Cultural Proficiency Champion and was also assisting Norfolk Superior Courts Chief Probation Officer Milton L. Britton, Jr. as an unpaid and unofficial assistant chief, according to Davis-Garrison.

The Suffolk University and University of Massachusetts Boston graduate and master’s degree qualified Davis-Garrison felt that the role should be made official and applied for a promotion in 2018. The opening would take her from the superior court back to juvenile court.

“I reached out to management for support and supervision and requested that they review my pre-trial cases to ensure that I didn’t miss anything in regards to my supervision of these cases during the past 2-3 months that I was left overburdened,” Davis-Garrison stated in the MCAD complaint.

A spokesperson for the trial court clarified to MassLive that “interview panels are typically diverse by gender and race.”

“The system is rigged as far as I’m concerned,” Williams highlighted to MassLive.

“I’ve been dealing with racism for years. When I first started 20 something years ago, I was young, I didn’t realize what I was dealing with,” Davis-Garrison told MassLive. “Because I was young, I thought that was just how things were.”

Davis-Garrison recalled how the courts used to be at Norfolk County when she first started.

When Davis-Garrison transferred over to the Norfolk Superior Court in 2006, she was told to go and meet her new colleagues just days after hearing the news. The goal was to meet the people she will be working closely with and familiarize herself with the court.

Along with another Black female probation officer and two white male probation officers, Davis-Garrison headed over to the courthouse. Because of the informal nature of the visit, the group was not wearing uniforms.

According to Davis-Garrison, as she and the other Black probation officer walked through the staff entrance a white court employee boomed out, “that entrance is not for you.”

“I showed the individual my badge and I.D., formally introduced myself and the other colleague she had addressed,” Davis-Garrison states in the complaint she filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) last year.

The two white men were spared any confrontation during the encounter and stood watching “in awe”, according to the MCAD complaint.

During this time, John J. O’Brien was the probation commissioner of the Massachusetts Probation Department and had hired at least 250 friends, relatives, financial backers of politicians and top court officials, a Spotlight investigation found.

“They were only promoting people who were related or had known state reps,” recalled Davis-Garrison. “And the thing is, if you’re a person of color, you don’t have those ins with people like that.”

A report was commissioned by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to investigate the hiring and promotion of employees within the Probation Department.

The 307-page report by independent counsel Paul J. Ware led to the state’s top administrative judge starting the proceedings to remove O’Brien and place on leave three deputy commissioners who would face disciplinary actions.

“The report describes in careful detail a systemic abuse and corruption of the hiring and promotion processes of the probation department,” the justices said in their statement.

“I was part of that generation,” Davis-Garrison specified.

Since the Court Reform Act in 2012, the Trial Court has enacted what they assert is a plan for fair and equal employment.

According to the annual Diversity Report by the Massachusetts Trial Court, almost 29.9 percent of the probation officers in Massachusetts are people of color. That percentage is up slightly from 28.7 percent in 2019.

“The Trial Court’s goal and intent to ensure that all candidates for appointment and promotion are provided with equal employment opportunity based upon their qualifications for the position,” the act states.

Davis-Garrison said things seemed to be getting better for a short time after the report was published and was helping to fill the role as an assistant chief probation officer with another staff member while the position was vacant.

Davis-Garrison admits that this was a different time but the bias is still present now, just less obvious.

Former Fall River District Court Probation Officer Sheila Mathieu told MassLive that it is like the management is chipping away at her character. Very subtly pushing people of color to look at work elsewhere.

Mathieu alleges years of discrimination but has not been able to produce documentation of her complaints to MassLive due to leaving the probation office and moving to Georgia for a new start.

Dennis A. Lawson Sr., a former court officer at the Chicopee District Court told MassLive about the treatment he received and felt he was also pushed out of his position.

On Jan. 4, 2017, an anonymous letter was submitted to the Regional Director of Security at Massachusetts Trial Court Paul Alvarado stating that the court’s only black officer, Lawson, was involved in criminal activity.

As an Army veteran, diagnosed with anxiety and depression, Lawson receives an Army pension for the injuries he sustained during his service. This bolsters his income and also afforded him the ability to buy a home and his car after saving for years, Lawson told MassLive.

“He had this anonymous letter and he accused me of being a drug dealer because I bought a Mercedes, because I bought a house,” said Lawson. “Now, I’m a kingpin in Paul Alvarado’s eyes, but I don’t sell drugs, I have nothing to do with that. Everything I have, I earned and I earned legally.”

According to the MCAD, Alvarado contacted the “local police department” and interviewed Lawson.

Lawson told MassLive that if it had been any other officer, this letter would have been tossed out as completely unwarranted. After becoming a court officer on June 7, 2004, and having had no issues for over a decade, for such an accusation to be taken seriously was insulting.

Lawson alleges that Alvarado came to the Chicopee lockup for one day, noticed his car and then “called the only Black male officer a drug dealer.”

On Feb. 1, 2017, the anonymous letter and subsequent investigation was dropped due to “the lack of corroboration of facts alleged.”

The relationship between Lawson and Alvarado deteriorated after the investigation into the letter. Lawson highlighted the problems he was having with Alvarado and filed an MCAD specifically against the regional director.

On July 19, 2017, Lawson was injured trying to subdue an inmate at the court and severely damaged his back. He subsequently took medical leave and has not been able to resume his duties since then.

On Feb. 5, 2020, a letter was sent from the Trial Court’s Human Resources Department notifying Lawson that he would need to provide medical documentation to show he is ready to return to work or his worker’s compensation would expire on July 19, 2020.

According to the MCAD documents, on June 23, 2020, Lawson’s worker’s compensation attorney notified the trial court that he was unable to return and that he intended to retire.

Lawson denies this and said that he wanted to return but because of the previous encounters with Alvarado, he was pushed out and in a letter to Peterson Pinkham, he accuses Alvarado of ruining his career.

“Black people and people of all colors and creeds should deserve the same opportunities for advancement as their white peers,” Lawson wrote.

His MCAD hearing will be held in September.

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