Chantal Charles may be a rich woman soon. After her experience working for the city, she deserves to be.
Charles, a black 33-year employee of the city’s Treasury Department, sued her bosses for racial discrimination and retaliation in 2012. Last week, the state Appeals Court upheld her previous win in court, one that had awarded her nearly $11 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Charles works in the trusts office, which manages funds left to the city. One of her primary duties has been to work with community groups applying for grants from those funds.
Charles’s woes began around 2010. That’s when first assistant collector-treasurer Vivian Leo — her boss’ supervisor — decided she had it in for Charles. Leo demanded that the supervisor give Charles a bad performance review, and pushed him into early retirement after he refused.
Her reason? Leo described Charles, in a meeting, as “aloof, non-deferential, uppity.” The supervisor, Robert Fleming, refused to write a review trashing Charles — and was punished with a terrible performance review of his own, which led to his early retirement, according to court documents.
Thus began years of Charles’s being punished and retaliated against, specifically by Leo. City Hall has not always been a model of effective and enlightened personnel management, but in more than 25 years of covering the place, I cannot recall a documented case of a vendetta against one employee like the one that Leo waged against Charles — and a racially discriminatory one, at that.
“Uppity” — a term applied exclusively to black people failing to accede to some white person’s idea of appropriate deference — speaks loudly for itself. If Leo’s career ever suffered in the slightest, there is no record of that. (She has since retired.)
“I think there was overwhelming evidence of a consistently enforced pattern of discrimination,” said Emma Quinn-Judge, one of Charles’s lawyers. “That’s what the jury found. The city threw the kitchen sink at this appeal. The appeals court ruling was a methodical dismissal of their arguments.”
After Charles filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination — a required first step before a lawsuit — her work life only got worse. She was pushed aside in the part of her job she most enjoyed. She was told that she couldn’t tell people in the community she managed anything. She was constantly belittled — the classic, textbook pattern of retaliation.
I should pause here and say that the events that led her to sue occurred well before the Walsh administration came into power.
Still, Charles’s career has continued to languish. Remarkably, she has been at the same pay grade since 1986, and has been denied promotions — including as recently as earlier this year.
“It happened under a prior administration but this administration has continued to defend those actions and they’ve done nothing to remedy the systemic ills,” said Monica Shah, who also represented Charles.
“There’s been no systemic look at hiring and promotions,” Shah continued.
“They have publicly proclaimed they want to promote from within, but Ms. Charles applied two times and again in 2019, and was passed over. There’s no reason why they didn’t [promote] her. She’s eminently qualified for that position.”
Laura Oggeri, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, said in a statement Friday the city is reviewing its options, in light of the appeal.
City officials may have more to consider before long. Two other black Treasury Department employees — Patrick Bosah and Priscilla Flint — also have pending lawsuits alleging discrimination against the city, asking why they, too, have never been able to get ahead.
I asked Charles Friday if she has seen change in the environment in her department for black employees.
“I don’t see any difference at all, personally,” Charles said “People are still feeling the same way toward people of color. I’m talking about my department. I don’t see people of color getting promoted or getting raises. “
One of the most remarkable aspects of a deeply offensive situation was the assertion of attorney Kay Hodge — a frequently hired legal gun for the city — that “uppity” is not really a racially loaded term. The Appeals Court made a point of rejecting that claim, as well it should have.
Charles’s award of $10 million in punitive damages at trial was later reduced to $2 million.
But the Appeals Court has sent that decision back to the lower court, finding that the reduction hadn’t been properly justified. On every issue, it came down resoundingly in Charles’s favor.
There’s really only one option for the Walsh administration at this point: Drop this suit.
Not only does it keep losing, the persecution of Charles flies in the face of the mayor’s claims of promoting diversity within City Hall. He can’t claim this is a leftover issue from the Menino years while continuing to defend those actions in court. The mayor can’t have it both ways.
Through it all, Charles has never left her post. I wondered why she has stayed; at this point, she could simply retire.
Her reason for staying put is simple, she said. She enjoys what she does.
“I have a desire, a passion, for the people that I serve in the city of Boston,” Charles said. “It’s rewarding when I’m working with the community to see the smiles on the faces and how happy they are that their projects are coming to fruition. And I like the fact that I’m helping them to improve their quality of life.”
It’s long past time for the city to which she has shown such loyalty to give her some love in return. It’s time to admit she’s won.