Despite #MeToo, MARTA rejects almost all sexual harassment claims

Dollmarie Garcia formally complained about a fellow bus hostler’s aggressive behavior in 2016, and she says she also told her supervisors that he was sexually harassing her and other women. “They just don’t care, and with the females here at MARTA, we’re just not treated as we should,” Garcia told the AJC. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

AJC’s review finds only one allegation substantiated in three years, with other case files in disarray

Shyanne Lord says she told her supervisors over and over again that the man she worked with at the MARTA garage wouldn’t stop hounding her for sex.

It went on for months on a near-daily basis as she cleaned and fueled buses coming off their routes, she said. He would eye her up and down, grabbing his crotch or licking his lips, asking how much she would charge for a tryst. Then after clock-out he sometimes followed her to her car in the pre-dawn dark, terrifying her, Lord said.

MARTA launched an investigation after she reported that he groped her in a parked bus. More accounts of the man’s behavior quickly piled up. Two other women came forward saying he made crude passes at them, too, and one said she witnessed the man follow Lord to her car. Two of Lord’s male co-workers told investigators they had seen him making other women uncomfortable with hugging and arm-grabbing.

None of that was sufficient for MARTA to rule that Lord had been sexually harassed. The man she accused, Ayodele Adenrele, still works at the Laredo Drive garage in Decatur. After Lord refused to work with him any longer, she says her managers reassigned her to a more distant bus depot.

“It was purely retaliatory,” Lord said. “It was to force me out.”

» RELATED: Complaints up sharply as new sex harassment policy takes hold

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Her case is among more than two dozen sexual harassment complaints filed by MARTA employees over the past three years, the majority of which ended in similar fashion to Lord's, a review of files by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. The files indicate that the #MeToo movement, launched nationally in late 2017, has had little impact on the transit agency, with women coming forward only to be discounted. The newspaper spent months requesting documents from MARTA and found only one case out of 26 where the agency substantiated a sexual harassment claim.

That doesn’t seem credible, said Patricia Wise, an Ohio attorney who served on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s task force on workplace harassment. “What kind of a chilling effect does that have on all the employees in the workplace?” she said.

MARTA employee Shyanne Lord is suing the agency, claiming that while she worked at the Laredeo Drive bus garage, pictured here, she endured sexual harassment from a co-worker on a near-daily basis. After she lodged a formal complaint, she says MARTA discounted her claims and retaliated by transferring her to a less-desirable garage. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Sometimes, employees who complained of sexual harassment were maligned or drummed out of their jobs.

That happened to two women who accused MARTA’s former chief financial officer, Gordon Hutchinson, of making degrading comments about their hair, clothing and appearance, in a case that put the agency’s skeptical approach to sexual harassment in the spotlight last year. One of the women was accused of mismanaging contracts and costing the agency tens of thousands of dollars; the other was fired over performance issues four months after her complaints were discounted.

Hutchinson was never disciplined before being fired in October.

Legal experts who reviewed case files for the AJC said MARTA appears to be approaching cases the wrong way, seeking nothing less than irrefutable proof of harassment, instead of making credibility determinations as to who’s more likely telling the truth, as recommended by national human resources and workplace investigators’ associations.

When MARTA did substantiate a sexual harassment allegation last year, it was because a bus security camera recorded the incident: one driver reaching into another driver’s crotch, and her smacking his hand away. The man was recommended for a five-day suspension and sexual harassment training.

MARTA’s former chief financial officer, Gordon Hutchinson, was credited with helping to move the agency from the red into the black in the mid-2010s. But he was fired last year after years of sexual harassment allegations and warnings by outside experts that he posed a legal liability. SPECIAL

“I think what you’re seeing is the pattern that you’re seeing in all the agencies, which is happening in companies, too,” Atlanta employment attorney Amanda Farahany said. “Which is this idea that in order to substantiate sexual harassment you have to have some sort of independent corroboration of it. And that’s almost never going to happen, unless you have video.”

From the records she reviewed, Farahany also said, “I would say that there’s some toxic culture that’s happening at MARTA.” The agency’s 4,600-plus workforce is 39 percent female, and the files give accounts of women at all levels of the organization subjected to propositions, insults, beratings and unwanted touching.

The agency’s handling of the cases also could put taxpayers at risk for costly litigation. Lord has filed a federal lawsuit against MARTA alleging sexual harassment, sexually hostile work environment, gender discrimination and retaliation.

For months, the AJC asked to speak with General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker about MARTA’s handling of sexual harassment claims. Parker, who joined the agency two years ago, declined and would not make any other officials available for interviews.

Last year, MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker was named Man of the Year by the Atlanta chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar for his track record of hiring and promoting women. For months, the AJC asked to speak with him about MARTA’s handling of sexual harassment claims, but he declined and would not make any other officials available for interviews. EMILY HANEY / EMILY.HANEY@AJC.COM

Investigations stopped cold

A statement issued by a MARTA spokeswoman said the agency “takes all reports of sexual harassment seriously and each case is thoroughly investigated, with the help of outside resources if necessary.”

But some current and former employees who spoke to the AJC described making repeated complaints to supervisors that went unheeded, before finally going to upper managers to see formal investigations launched. The review of files found some complaints appear to have been set aside without complete investigations. Other files had key pages missing, and sometimes MARTA couldn’t locate records to show how it reached conclusions.

» PREVIOUSLY: In #MeToo era, state employees wonder "what about me"

» FROM 2018: Women working in Georgia prisons endure harassment, groping — by male guards

The spokeswoman conceded that records were not adequately managed by the diversity and inclusion office during years covered in the AJC’s review. “The new director has made personnel changes and instituted new policies that will ensure claims are properly maintained and organized for easy reference and retrieval, and that any ensuing investigation and resolution will be catalogued,” she said in an email Tuesday.

In the documents that were retrieved, it seemed nothing could convince MARTA that sexual harassment occurred. In case after case reviewed by the AJC, investigators seized on any lack of hard evidence — no eyewitnesses, no video recordings, a denial by the accused — to make a no-cause ruling.

“Even when you can’t find objective or third-party corroboration, you need to make a credibility determination,” Wise, the employment attorney, said. “When you hear people say he said/she said, that’s not a conclusion.”

If employers don’t want to label behavior as sexual harassment out of defamation concerns, they should still take action against the perpetrator as if that were the finding, said Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “There’s just too much at risk,” he said. “When you are unable to prove it, but you know it because of the totality of the circumstances … then that’s when we recommend exercising employment at will.”

According to statistics provided by MARTA, women make up 39 percent of its workforce, 34 percent of its supervisory positions and 50 percent of its leadership and executive-level positions. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

A train driver complained in 2017 that as she was microwaving food at the Hamilton E. Holmes station, chatting with the driver who was about to relieve her, he reached out and grabbed her breast. She told MARTA police she went to them after her managers didn’t respond to her for days. Even though the other driver had reportedly apologized to her twice, the case was dropped because surveillance cameras didn’t capture the incident and there were no eyewitnesses.

A rail car cleaner reported in 2018 that while she was sitting in a break room, a radio technician moved his hand across the back of her neck in a sexual manner. Since no one else in the room saw it, diversity and inclusion said sexual harassment could’t be determined “by a preponderance of the evidence.”

An intern reported last year that a contract worker showed her a pornographic video at work. Witnesses backed her up, but MARTA ruled that a single incident didn’t amount to a hostile work environment, so there was insufficient evidence of a violation.

Last year a quality assurance engineer’s unsubstantiated sexual harassment claims became part of the justification for firing her. Emails show Carla Jackson had complained repeatedly that a man she turned down for a date kept calling her “dyke,” and other people in the office started using the insult against her, too. Her termination letter cited conflicts with co-workers, and also said, “You have made ongoing allegations against the entire Bus Maintenance department that continue to be unsubstantiated.”

“It’s easier to get rid of one person than to correct a culture,” said Jackson, who has a complaint pending with the EEOC.

In the case of the man accused of harassing Shyanne Lord, two separate files lay out allegations from four women that he had been a chronic problem at the Laredo garage, cussing out his co-workers in the bus lanes and pestering women for after-hours sex.

MARTA employee Dollmarie Garcia said that after she complained about a co-worker who seemed tight with their supervisors, she feared for her job. So she applied for a promotion, got transferred to a new work location, and told employee relations she considered the matter closed. MARTA investigated no further. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Dollmarie Garcia complained about Ayodele Adenrele when they both worked at the Laredo bus garage as “hostlers” cleaning and prepping buses. She wrote an email to a superintendent reporting that he was picking fights and threatening co-workers. Garcia told the AJC she had verbally lodged other complaints that aren’t in the file. She said she told her Laredo supervisors about 20 times that Adenrele was sexually harassing her and other women — asking if she was single, saying he ought to follow her home, and chasing after female bus drivers and trying to talk to them.

Adenrele seemed to be friendly with their supervisors, who were all male, so Garcia said she feared her complaints put her in danger of losing her job. She applied for a job as a station agent and got herself transferred out of the Decatur garagetelling her case investigator she needed no further assistance.

“Anybody who speaks up, they’ll find a way to get rid of you,” Garcia said. “I knew I had to get out of there, because at some point they were going to come after me.”

MARTA’s diversity and inclusion office dropped its investigation. A case-closure sheet noted that “an intervention” had been done, which involved someone from employee relations going over the standard of conduct policy with Adenrele.

The next person affected

Later that year, bus hostler Shyanne Lord transferred into the Laredo garage, and she says her troubles with Adenrele started right away.

He propositioned her almost every day, she said: What would it cost to rent you for the night? A woman's place is on her knees pleasuring a man. Is that your real butt?

Lord said she told him she had a fiancé, but he wouldn’t stop. “His whole thing was, I was playing hard to get, and I would come around,” she told the AJC. “And he found that to be amusing.”

Lord said she told her supervisors repeatedly what Adenrele was doing to her. “Yeah yeah yeah, we’ll check into it,” she quoted a supervisor telling her. Nothing changed.

Several of his co-workers, male and female, told their bosses that Ayodele Adenrele was making crude propositions to women and being belligerent on the job. MARTA handed him minor discipline and kept him posted at the same garage. SPECIAL

She described his following her to her car more than once, banging on her window, or rubbing his crotch against her backside as she struggled to get in and shut the door. During a shift as she sat in the driver's seat of a bus, waiting in line to refuel, Lord said the man slipped on board with her. "A heavy feeling came over me at that moment," Lord said. "There's only one door. And where he was positioned, I couldn't react."

Lord said he reached between her legs and groped her inner thigh.

This time, she filed a written complaint, prompting both the diversity and inclusion and employee relations offices to investigate.

Contacted by phone, Adenrele referred questions to MARTA and hung up. In his interview with investigators, he said he didn’t touch Lord’s thigh, but he may have just tapped her on the leg unconsciously during a random conversation. “All these allegation from my co-worker … doesn’t make any sense,” he said in a written statement. “They just don’t want to work.”

MARTA’s official findings made much of the fact that surveillance footage from the bus where the alleged groping happened couldn’t be pulled, since it took more than a week for Lord’s complaints to her supervisors to reach the employee relations office. In a letter to the EEOC, the agency said there was insufficient evidence of sexual harassment because “there were no witnesses to the actual events.”

Adenrele was found only to have violated MARTA’s standards of conduct and workplace violence policies for his alleged verbal abuse of co-workers. Records show he received a suspension — served while he was on leave during the investigation — and an order to attend diversity and sensitivity training.

At her new work site, diesel fuel sprayed into Lord’s eyes in September 2018, and she’s been out on workers’ compensation ever since. She said she wouldn’t have been at that garage if she hadn’t been sexually harassed.

“Everything is affected by it,” she said. “My finances. My family. My professional life.”

Our reporting

In stories in 2018 and 2019, reporters Jennifer Peebles, Chris Joyner and Johnny Edwards revealed how Georgia state government often failed employees who reported sexual harassment. The state had a haphazard system that spared high-ranking employees from significant sanctions, while leaving victims at risk of retaliation. The stories prompted Gov. Brian Kemp to make the state Inspector General’s office the clearinghouse for complaints from across the state, to try to ensure that employees who claimed they were being harassed were treated fairly.

Further reporting revealed how odds are stacked against Georgia’s private-sector employees, who have little recourse for saving their jobs should employers buck the lessons of #MeToo and turn against workers for speaking out. That’s largely because federal judges, following precedents set by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, dismiss all but a few cases before they ever reach a courtroom.

Today’s story looks at sexual harassment complaints inside MARTA — a regional transit agency that doesn’t fall under Gov. Kemp’s direct authority.

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