Ex-Fraser city manager files whistleblower lawsuit

Related to gender wage gap disparity among department heads

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published October 19, 2020

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FRASER — Former Fraser City Manager Donald Wayne O’Neal recently filed an employee discrimination lawsuit against the city, alleging that he was terminated due to attempting to bridge the pay gap between male and female city department heads.

The lawsuit falls under the Whistleblower’s Protection Act, due to O’Neal previously testifying in a separate deposition case that involved three female city administrators: Parks and Recreation Director Christina Woods, Clerk Kelly Dolland and IT Director Michelle Kwiatkowski.

An amended complaint was later filed pertaining to the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, for compensatory damages, statutory fees and a reimbursement of litigation costs.

O’Neal first came to Fraser on an interim basis on Jan. 2, 2017, and was permanently hired in the city manager position July 1 that same year.

The whistleblower complaint, filed Sept. 15 in Macomb County Circuit Court, states that O’Neal was required by Fraser City Council in December 2018 to conduct a Michigan Municipal League survey to determine whether city department heads’ salaries were comparable with other communities.

The survey, which was completed on or around Jan. 3, 2019, specifically mentioned Woods, Dolland and Kwiatkowski and how they “were paid disparately low both in terms of their non-Fraser comparables, and with respect to male directors and administrators within the city of Fraser.”

O’Neal then prepared a recommendation to council that a 2% salary increase be approved across the board to all male department heads, in addition to raising female department heads’ salaries so they would be equivalent to their male counterparts.

The complaint states that O’Neal “felt and believed in good faith” that the pay inequities violated the Equal Pay Act, as well as Title VII and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act — the latter of which was enacted in Michigan in 1973 to prohibit discrimination based on aspects like sex, race, religion and other determining factors.

It is alleged that prior to O’Neal placing his recommendation on the city’s Jan. 10, 2019, council meeting agenda, he had discussions with city administration regarding his findings. His request for council action never took place during that Jan. 10 meeting.

Also, it is alleged that throughout the first six months of 2019, O’Neal “repeatedly informed” Fraser Mayor Mike Carnagie and the rest of council regarding pay disparity. He reportedly told city officials that the aforementioned female employees would pursue legal action via the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In May or June of 2019, City Council members formed a subcommittee to review wages in order to make a recommendation. O’Neal was not a member of the subcommittee.

One month later, on July 18, a lawsuit was filed by Woods, Dolland and Kwiatkowski. On Feb. 19 of this year, O’Neal provided a deposition in which he discussed the MML survey and the recommendations he made to city officials and administrators.

On June 4, a transcript of his deposition was reportedly forwarded by City Councilwoman Amy Baranski to the rest of council for review. On June 11, O’Neal was allegedly informed he would be terminated on Aug. 11. He was, in fact, relieved of his duties on Aug. 11.

Fraser City Attorney Donald DeNault said he was “unable to comment on pending litigation matters.”

O’Neal is represented by Robert Palmer, of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bosanni & Rivers PC, in Royal Oak.

Palmer said his client’s complaint is “very factual” and lays out the accurate timeline of events.

“During the course of (conducting a comparative study O’Neal) discovered none of them (Woods, Dolland, Kwiatkowski) weren’t (paid along industry standards) and it appeared the female directors were grossly underpaid in comparison to their male counterparts,” Palmer said. “He brought that to the attention of the board. They said they would do a study on it but never ended up correcting the disparity.”

Once O’Neal’s deposition circulated to all of City Council, Palmer said O’Neal was terminated for “no reason.”

“It seems pretty clear he was terminated because he found this disparity, acted to get it changed, and testified under oath and they didn’t like it and fired him,” he added.

The complaint mentions O’Neal’s economic damages, such as lost wages and benefits, as well as non-economic damages including “mental anguish, outrage, embarrassment and other pain and suffering.”

“He basically went from a good job to no job and suffering from a significant financial loss every day,” Palmer said.

Carnagie, who could not be reached for comment, said in late August of this year that he sat down with O’Neal and told him his contract would not be renewed. The city wanted to go in a new direction, he said.

“(O’Neal) was very honorable and professional in his departure, and he offered to help the city any way he could,” Carnagie said at the time. “It was amicable on both sides.”

Both Dolland and Kwiatkowski, along with city employee Leah Brown, were part of another recent Fraser legal battle, involving former Mayor Joe Nichols and former Councilman Matt Hemelberg.

Each of the employees was paid $85,000 as part of a sexual harassment lawsuit, which ultimately led to the removal of Nichols and Hemelberg from Fraser City Council.

Palmer, in a written request to the court, “demands a trial by jury of the facts and issues.”

Circuit Court Judge Carl Marlinga is presiding over the matter. Marc Thompson is the current interim city manager in Fraser.

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