A gay former employee of the Washington Teachers Union filed a lawsuit in federal court on Sept. 18 accusing the union, its president, and its former chief of staff of subjecting him to a hostile work environment and later firing him because of his sexual orientation.
Upper Marlboro, Md., resident Barry Hobson, 36, charges in the lawsuit that he was subjected to unfair and discriminatory treatment and harassment by WTU’s then chief of staff, Dorothy Egbufor. The lawsuit says Egbufor served as Hobson’s immediate supervisor shortly after he was hired as a receptionist and office assistant on Jan. 15, 2017.
Hobson’s attorneys filed the lawsuit on his behalf in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In addition to Egbufor, the lawsuit names as defendants Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis and the union itself, which represents 5,000 D.C. public school teachers.
In response to a request by the Washington Blade for comment on the lawsuit, Davis released a statement to the Blade calling Hobson’s allegations “outrageous and totally without merit.” She said the union was reviewing the lawsuit “in consultation with its attorneys and will respond through the appropriate legal processes.”
Davis added, “The Washington Teachers Union has always been, and continues to be strongly committed to treating all individuals equally regardless of their sexual orientation.”
The lawsuit charges that Egbufor began treating Hobson in a hostile way immediately after he informed her while preparing an application for employee health insurance benefits that a beneficiary on his health plan would be his then fiancé and current husband Timothy Savoy.
“Shortly after he submitted his paperwork, on or about January 31, 2017, Plaintiff had a disturbing phone call with Defendant Egbufor that she initiated about Plaintiff’s benefits,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant Egbufor said that she saw ‘Timothy’ listed on the benefits documents. Defendant Egbufor then asked, ‘Exactly who is he to you?’ Plaintiff responded ‘my fiancé,’” the lawsuit says.
“Prior to abruptly hanging up on Plaintiff, Defendant Egbufor said in a tone of disgust with a raised voice, ‘Your fiancé, ok Barry goodbye.’ Then she immediately hung up,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit includes photo copies of two internal emails that it says Egbufor sent to Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis and in which the lawsuit says Egbufor makes disparaging remarks about Hobson’s sexual orientation and about LGBT people in general.
“We should confer about allowing Barry to take advantage of WTU’s insurance benefits since he confirmed he engages in same-sex intimacy,” Egbufor states in one of the emails dated Feb. 15, 2017. “Never in WTU’s past have we allowed any individual to participate on our group policy ‘openly gay’ and I don’t think this should be an exception,” Egbufor purportedly said in the email.
“Allowing Barry Hobson benefits will without question open the door to many issues down the road,” the email continues. “Market data shows a substantial premium/rate increase when allowing the LGBT community to participate in employer sponsored plans for various reasons. AIDS, HIV, and STD statistics are great pricing factors when considering this community and would be a detriment to our regular employees with significant rate increases…,” the email states.
Brian Markovitz, the lead attorney representing Hobson, disputed Egbufor’s assumption that LGBT employees participating in an employer health insurance plan would result in insurers charging higher premiums. He said denying an employee access to an employer health plan, which he said WTU withheld from Hobson, is a clear violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The second email that Egbufor sent to Davis that’s copied in the lawsuit is dated March 12, 2017. Egbufor states in the email that it should be considered “Highly Confidential and Privileged.”
It discusses what Egbufor says was Hobson’s poor working habits, including what she said was his tendency to be “insubordinate” to directions from her and others, allegations that the lawsuit calls fabrications.
“Barry’s nature of resistance and pushback is common among his peers in the homosexual community and will be an ongoing issue for WTU if not addressed while we maintain authority within the probationary period of employment,” Egbufor purportedly stated in the email. “As a result, I plan to recommend termination and immediately begin reassigning the remainder of his job duties to various staff in the coming days,” the email says.
In her statement to the Blade, Davis questioned the authenticity of the emails the lawsuit says were written and sent by Egbufor.
“The WTU will hire an outside firm specializing in computer forensics to investigate the authenticity of the emails used by Mr. Hobson in his complaint, Emails which I have never received nor were written by WTU staff,” she says in her statement.
Markowitz, who is with the Greenbelt, Md., law firm Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, said Hobson’s legal team also plans to ask the court as part of the legal “discovery” process to order the WTU to make its computers available to their own forensics expert to confirm the authenticity of the emails.
The lawsuit says Egbufor’s March 12 email was a form of retaliation that came after Hobson filed a discrimination complaint against her and WTU on Feb. 26 with the D.C. Office of Human Rights. He said Hobson filed the complaint after he had been subjected to almost daily hostile actions by Egbufor and after he had repeatedly raised concerns about Egbufor’s treatment toward him with Davis through several emails and Davis failed to take action to address the situation.
The lawsuit says the WTU employee handbook specifically calls on employees to contact Davis in her role as WTU president if an employee believes he or she is being unfairly or improperly treated at work.
In his emails to Davis, Hobson at one point requested to meet with Davis to discuss the hostile treatment he said he was receiving from Egbufor, the lawsuit says. It says Davis eventually did meet with him, but nothing appeared to have resulted from the meeting because the harassing and hostile actions by Egbufor toward him continued unabated, according to the lawsuit.
“On or about April 1, 2017, Defendant WTU’s board met, and per Defendant Egbufor’s recommendation, voted to terminate Plaintiff,” the lawsuit says. “Upon information and belief, Defendant Davis, as a voting member of Defendant WTU’s Board, voted to terminate Plaintiff,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit says Davis notified Hobson about his termination on April 3, 2017.
“During his time at Defendant WTU and after his termination, Plaintiff was in a state of anxiety and suffered chest pains, sleep disturbances, loss of weight, problems breathing, and states of panic,” the lawsuit adds. “Some of these symptoms are ongoing,” it says.
The lawsuit calls for $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages for each of three counts – sexual orientation discrimination, sexual orientation hostile work environment, and retaliation, each of which, the lawsuit says, are violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act.
In a development that Markovitz calls a strong rebuke to Davis and Egbufor and a major boost to Hobson’s lawsuit, WTU General Vice President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons agreed to a request by Hobson to write him a letter of recommendation in his effort to find a new job after his firing.
“It’s my absolute pleasure to recommend Barry Hobson for a Professional Support position with your organization,” Pogue-Lyons wrote in her letter, a copy of which is included in the lawsuit. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with Barry, and have come to know him as a truly valuable asset to any team,” her letter states. “He is honest, dependable, and incredibly hard-working.”
The letter adds, “Along with his undeniable talent, Barry has always been an absolute joy to work with. He is a true team player, and always manages to foster positive discussions and bring the best out of other employees.”
Similar to Davis, Pogue-Lyons was elected by WTU members to her position as General Vice President, which is the number two position in the union’s leadership.
In yet another twist to Hobson’s lawsuit, the Washington Teachers Union is an affiliated member – Local 6 – of the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers union that is a part of the AFL-CIO and which is headed by an out lesbian, Randi Weingarten. Weingarten, an attorney and longtime union activist, was elected head of the AFT in 2008.