Trial begins for former Cambridge Police employee suing over alleged discrimination

Originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle on May 7, 2014.

Editor’s note: This article covers opening statements and the first day of witness testimony. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

“Moron,” “retarded,” “uneducated,” were just a few of the words Gloria Law said were slung at her when she was an employee in the human resources office at the Cambridge Police Department, she told a Middlesex Superior courtroom Monday, May 5.

Law is suing Cambridge, charging racial discrimination, alleging not only did her supervisors discriminate against her, but every person she went to for help within the city either made it worse or did nothing. The city denies the allegations.

The suit is one of three lawsuits against the city, all focused on bias and discrimination allegations, currently pending at the superior court, along with a fourth case currently in appeals court and more than half-a-dozen formal complaints at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Another former employee, Malvina Monteiro, won $4.5 million in punitive damages from a racial discrimination lawsuit against the city in 2008. The city appealed and lost in 2011, increasing the final payout, including lawyers’ fees to roughly $12 million.

“Everyone deserves a safe place to work,” Law’s attorney, Michael Mason, of the firm Bennett & Belfort, P.C., said as he began his opening statement. “The evidence you’ll hear is that Gloria’s supervisors and her coworkers made statements to her such as, ‘She can’t speak English,’ ‘We don’t understand her when she talks,’ ‘She’s an idiot, a moron.’ They called her an animal, they called her a bitch. They said they hated her and they hated Filipinos.”

The emotional toll became a physical one, Mason said. He called Law’s psychiatrist and a trauma specialist to the stand, both of whom testified to diagnosing her with post-traumatic stress disorder. She has nightmares, stomach pains and panic attacks as a result of increased anxiety from work-related stress, they said.

Speaking for the city, assistant city solicitor, Elizabeth Lashway, asked the jury to be skeptical of Law’s claims. Law disregarded critiques from her supervisors, Lashway said. She had outbursts in the office, making her coworkers uncomfortable. She resisted changes from analogue to digital technologies.

“Just because Mrs. Law said these allegations occurred … does not mean they did occur,” Lashway said. “I ask you to please not confuse Mrs. Law’s allegations of racial discrimination with her allegations of her mental health and emotional distress. We believe the evidence to show that the alleged incidents were a figment of Mrs. Law’s imagination. We expect the evidence to show that there was no discrimination based on Mrs. Law’s national origin or race. We expect the evidence to show that the city did not retaliate against Mrs. Law, and we expect the evidence to show that the city did not constructively discharge Mrs. Law.”

Witness testimony

Law reportedly worked for the Cambridge Police Department from 1998 to 2009, when she resigned, citing office-related stress from a hostile working environment as the primary cause. It wasn’t always that way though, she said during the first day of witness testimony on Monday.

When she started working for the department, she was always happy, she said. Her coworkers called her “Gloria Sunshine” because of the broad smile that would cross her face as she handed out the weekly paystubs to employees. It was her dream, she said, to come to America and work in public service, as several of her family members do in her hometown in the Philippines.

“It was a very proud place to work,” Law said. “When I was in the Philippines, my family, they are working in a good community, working with people to do excellent public service. My brothers and sisters and some of my relatives, I’m so proud of them that they are working in the town that I lived. You can really see they helped the poor people.”

Something changed however, in 2002, when her supervisor left and several employees in her office turned over. She had a new supervisor and new coworkers.

Her three Caucasian coworkers would eat in the supervisor’s office, shunning Law by closing the door when they were there, Law said. They moved her desk to the front of the room in a receptionist’s position, Law said, with her back facing them.

Then, Law said, the epithets starting pouring in. Law put her head in her hands to gain composure before repeating the words her coworkers used. They told her she couldn’t speak English, they couldn’t understand what she was saying, that she couldn’t read or write, Law said. On more than one occasion, Law said they discussed hating Filipinos in her presence.

“Moron, retarded, uneducated,” Law said before breaking down in tears.

“I went to the Police Commissioner and complained of all the bad words, discriminatory words, mocking words, toxic words, disrespectful words that they are yelling and shouting at me in the office on numerous occasions,” Law said.

He told her he didn’t want to get involved, she said. Law reportedly tried other tactics. In March 2003, she met with Duane Brown from the city’s Affirmative Action Office over a work-related complaint from her supervisor, but she said they never addressed her complaint of racial discrimination.

She called six of her commanding officers for help, but was instead sent a letter from then-City Manager Robert Healy saying the city was “contemplating taking administrative action” because she was “disparaging (her) supervisors.”

The city scheduled a hearing and told her it was her “time to be heard,” according to a letter Law read from the witness stand.

“The only one who spoke was the human resource director,” Law said. She was suspended without pay for five days.

She began having stomach problems and panic attacks. She was miserable in her workplace. She began seeing a psychiatrist and then a year later, a trauma specialist. She became paranoid and afraid.

Law was scheduled to continue her testimony Tuesday, May 6.

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