Metro Louisville

A Louisville Metro parks department employee and his former supervisor are alleging discrimination and retaliation based on race in a lawsuit against city government 

Vincent Watkins, a plaintiff in the civil suit, is a Black man who’s been working within the city’s parks department for more than a decade. He’s alleging a racist and hostile work environment and said he’s faced disparaging comments, threats and seemingly unwarranted disciplinary action from department management.

The second plaintiff, Mahlon Morton, used to be Watkins’ direct supervisor. The lawsuit says he called out higher-ups for their targeted attacks.

They’re represented by civil rights attorney Tom Coffey.

“Mahlon was called to a disciplinary hearing for Vince where it was said that he wasn’t properly doing his job,” Coffey said. “[He] stepped in and said, ‘This stuff isn’t true. I’m his supervisor, I’m the one who is assigning him these places where he’s supposed to be going — he’s going to exactly where I’m telling him and he’s doing exactly what I’m telling them to do.’”

Morton, a white man, was fired two days after that disciplinary hearing for what court records describe as being “argumentative”. The county held another hearing in Watkins’ case a couple of months later. 

“This time, they got Mahlon out of the way so they could have a ‘neutral hearing’ this way,” Coffey said. “They could push him away and conduct the hearing that they wanted in the first place.”

The lawsuit alleges Parks Department Manager Jeffrey Abbott harassed at least three other Black employees and, in one instance, falsely but publicly said one of them has HIV. 

Attorney Andrew Burcham represents members of the local public workers trade union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME Local 2629. He said Abbott also made a racist remark in a room full of supervisors and went unchecked. 

“You have the most recent complaints about Mr. Abbott, who referred to a predominantly Black shop as ‘the penitentiary,’” Burcham said. “The people that have allowed it to go on have not been held accountable. It’s a systemic and cultural problem. Parks is just a test case for all this because there’s other instances throughout Metro.”

Abbott and other parks department leaders declined to comment.  

Burcham said one impediment to progress is a flawed grievance process. Essentially, it consists of different steps of documentation and mediation until an issue is resolved. The problem is department heads are in charge of investigating and settling complaints — even if they’re at the center of them. 

“The investigative process is broken, the accountability process is broken [and the] transparency process is broken,” Burcham said. “The department can decline to participate in investigations when someone claims harassment or racism.”

public workers union office windowYasmine Jumaa | wfpl.org

The local public workers trade union office on Preston Highway.

Saulette Davis works for the city’s Department of Corrections and has been AFSCME president since 2016. 

“The red flags are the racism. The red flags are nobody’s been held accountable. The red flags are Metro Government really needs an overhaul that needs to look at their internal process on how they operate and really have those hardcore discussions on how to fix it,” Davis said. 

She and Burcham have been trying to raise alarm over a slew of issues affecting city workers, including discrimination within the parks department. 

“The mayor is part of the blame for that, because he’s not holding anyone accountable for their actions,” Davis said. “What I would like to see is accountability, acknowledging that there is a problem. And then how can we fix it and move forward and work together as a team?”

Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for Mayor Greg Fischer, declined to comment about the pending litigation, but said in an email, “Discrimination at any level within Louisville Metro Government is not tolerated.”

Wethington didn’t provide details in response to a follow-up question about how the city actually handles discrimination complaints. 

Over the course of 22 years of working within Louisville Metro, Davis said she’s seen city officials and department heads slap band-aids over issues instead of addressing the root causes. She added bad actors in high positions are more likely to be shuffled off to different departments than they are to be terminated.

Earlier this year, Davis and Burcham went before Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee with their concerns about discrimination, negligence and disregard for worker safety. They asked city officials to investigate outstanding claims and to put an end to the abuses of power. 

“There was a park supervisor who proudly displayed his Confederate flag in front of his house, and at the same time was being reported for some racial discriminatory behavior. And I haven’t heard a single thing about that. That was two years ago,” Burcham said during the February meeting. 

So far, nothing has come of their pleas for change.

Court documents show Louisville Metro Government is denying the claims and complaints Vincent Watkins and Mahlon Morton made in their lawsuit against the city. Attorney Tom Coffey said the case is still in its early stages, and that it’s a slow-moving process that could take months or even years to get through.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.