$100 Million Potential Class Action Alleges Preference for Hispanics Under Chancellor Maldonado
ABOVE: Zelia Brown
Dr. Cesar Maldonado, Houston Community College chancellor since 2014, routinely used the word “transformation” to describe the evolution of the college under his leadership.
But a new lawsuit alleges that “transformation” is “euphemistic code” for Black removal that has resulted in the demotion and termination of a disproportionate number of Black top-level employees who were largely replaced by less-qualified Hispanic hires.
Zelia Brown, a 55-year-old former manager of grants performance and compliance at HCC, was hired in February 2016 to manage the college’s state and federal grants. As the plaintiff in this lawsuit, she alleges discrimination because she is African American and female, as well as retaliation for reporting the theft of grant funds.
“When they want to get rid of you … they come up with a story,” Brown said in a Forward Times interview. “It is designed to make you feel inadequate … I just want the truth to come out.”
The suit names four defendants: Houston Community College; HCC Chancellor Dr. Cesar Maldonado; HCC District III Trustee Dr. Adriana Tamez; and Janet May, HCC’s chief human resources officer.
Notably filed on Juneteenth (June 19), the petition comes at a critical moment when racial inequity is being examined and the consequences of longstanding bias are being acknowledged more widely. The lawsuit also seeks to become a class action, to sue on behalf of Black employees who worked at HCC after May 2014 or are currently employed at the college. At least $100 million in compensatory damages are being pursued on behalf of Brown and the class in addition to punitive damages.
The lawsuit alleges that there was a deliberate practice of displacing African American professionals, specifically Black women, through “discrimination, retaliation, and disparate treatment” to make room for less-qualified Hispanic and White hires.
“Plaintiff is the victim of a well-developed, systematic, entrenched and wildly successful campaign of race and sex discrimination against top level Black employees at HCC. This dreadful ‘campaign’ has resulted in the dismissal, demotion and/or termination of Blacks at alarming and disproportionate rates,” the lawsuit states.
One of the lawsuit’s exhibits is an April 2014 email chain involving Maldonado, shortly after he was named the sole finalist for the chancellorship, from HCC Director Dr. Richard Solis who writes that “Now WE will finally get preferential treatment” – presumably referring to Hispanic employees.
The case further claims that since Maldonado became chancellor, high-ranking Black employees “have been deliberately and consistently targeted, removed and demoted” through a “scheme” allegedly executed by May through human resources, where false or exaggerated allegations snowball into a demotion or termination.
“In less than six years at the helm of HCC, Maldonado and May have succeeded in firing and/or removing a staggering 90% of the top-level Black employees from positions many of them have held for decades,” the suit states. “Most of these Black employees were fired or demoted despite having exemplary work histories at HCC before Maldonado and May’s arrival.”
The suit also makes the comparison and calculation that 10% of White executives have been “transformed” and 50% more Hispanics have been hired in vacated positions. Tamez is being sued for allegedly “stockpiling” grant benefits in violation of guidelines and is accused of retaliating against Brown when the plaintiff questioned the handling of those grant funds.
After reporting the alleged misuse of $500,000 in grant funds earmarked to assist small minority businesses impacted by Hurricane Harvey, Brown said she was told she created a hostile work environment and was placed on administrative leave with pay in November.
In January, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General about the federal grant money.
Brown resigned March 9.
The HCC Board of Trustees has nine members. Four of them are African American. At least one trustee took action on alleged grant inconsistencies before the lawsuit was filed.
In May, Dr. Pretta VanDible Stallworth, one of the Black trustees, requested a “forensic accounting” of HCC’s grant programs by an independent law firm because of the significant decrease in grant funding to the college system over the past several years. Trustees discussed the matter in closed session and voted 7-2 against an independent audit.
Brown said she read a three-page statement to the board that became a lawsuit exhibit during a June 3 teleconference meeting. She requested to appear during public comment, but was only allowed to speak to trustees in closed session by phone. She said she briefly explained her allegations; described what happened to her; asked the board to launch an independent investigation; requested that the offenders face discipline; and asked for her HCC record to be cleared, with her employment reinstated.
Brown sued two weeks later. The HCC Board of Trustees and HCC issued separate statements in response to requests for comment about the lawsuit:
“As a board, we take any allegation against the college seriously,” the HCC Board of Trustees statement said. “Our commitment, as one of the most diverse institutions of higher education in the country, to diversity, equity and inclusion is absolute. Our policies and procedures align with this deep and long-held commitment. We look forward to a thorough, thoughtful review as we continue to work with the administration to ensure a safe, inclusive environment. Because this is pending litigation, we will not comment further.”
Houston Community College, through spokesman Remmele Young, released the following statement: “The focus of Houston Community College is serving our students and living up to our important mission of accessible, affordable, high quality education for all. As the most diverse community college in the country, we are unwavering in our commitment to provide a safe, equitable and inclusive learning and work environment. Our priority will always remain our students and those who teach and serve them. Because this is pending litigation, we cannot comment further on this matter.”
On June 29, the other three Black trustees – Reagan Flowers, Ph.D., Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Cynthia Lenton-Gary, Ph.D. – issued a statement supporting a review of racial discrimination allegations: “As Trustees of Houston Community College System, we take any allegation against the college seriously. We believe as a board and College system, that we must ensure any practices that create an environment where people feel discriminated against be handled with thoughtfulness and mindfulness. HCC is one of the most diverse institutions of higher education in the country and as Trustees, our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is absolute. We will continue to support the work necessary to ensure that the College policies and procedures align with this commitment. Regarding pending litigation, we will not comment further at this time. However, we want to ensure the Greater Houston community that we are in support of a thorough, thoughtful review of the racial discrimination allegations the College now faces and will continue to work with this administration to ensure a safe and inclusive environment for all.”
Potential class action
Brown said the lawsuit is bigger than her individual accusations.
“I am proud to be doing this because there are so many individuals who have been harmed with the pervasive discrimination that is taking place,” she said. “This is something that no one should have to go through. We should be able to go to work and have a career like any other race.”
The case, which makes claims based on federal law and under the Texas Whistleblower Act, has been removed from state jurisdiction to the U.S. District Court in Houston.
Brown’s lead counsel is Benjamin L. Hall, III, a former city attorney and well-known trial lawyer.
HCC, which has about 48,000 students, is being represented by Paul Lamp and C. Cory Rush of the Houston-based law firm, Karczewski Bradshaw Spalding.
“It’s just so unfortunate that in 2020, we still have to deal with navigating our lives in this manner,” Brown said. “When is it going to stop?”