AARP Faces Accusations of Hostile Workplace, Discrimination in Black Woman’s Lawsuit: Case Claims Racism Derailed Promising Career

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When Laurinda Dodgen worked at the Illinois state office of the American Association of Retired Persons, her performance was strong enough to get her appointed interim national vice president, a position in which she was known to be a creative and effective leader. But a few short months after completing that assignment, the atmosphere allegedly changed.

“Her white male supervisor, Bob Gallo, seemed to really take offense to the fact that she had gone and performed really well in that role, and from there, things started to go downhill,” said Keenan J. Saulter, Dodgen’s attorney who is based in Chicago.

AARP defense counsel Richard McArdle didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Dodgen had planned to retire from the advocacy organization with a generous retirement and benefits package that she was in the process of earning over 10 years until her vision was allegedly sabotaged by Gallo.

“He gave her the worst review she’d ever gotten up until that point and attacked her in ways that just simply don’t make any sense based on her reputation on the record and ability,” Mr. Saulter said. “It got far worse when he hired Mary Anderson in January 2019.”

The 40-something-year-old African-American employee was constructively discharged six months later, and Dodgen sued in the Northern District of Illinois in January alleging discriminatory conduct by Gallo and Anderson created a hostile work environment.

“Laurinda had to seek medical attention relating to the discrimination that she was subjected to,” Mr. Saulter told PacerMonitor News.

The AARP began to move the court to dismiss Dodgen’s 34-page complaint in July arguing that the timeline of alleged incidents are minor and have no basis in her race, sex or age.

“AARP talks a lot about Ms. Dodgen’s allegations not being severe enough to survive their motion to dismiss,” said Ayesha Bell Hardaway, an attorney and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. “The procedural approach that the defense lawyers are using in their words on the paper make it really clear to me that there is a strong effort to minimize the allegations.”

In its Aug. 25 reply in support of dismissal, attorneys for AARP assert that Ms. Dodgen’s complaint would be more convincing if she had been terminated.

“Plaintiff voluntarily left her employment when she did not return from [Family and Medical Leave Act] FMLA leave,” wrote defense attorney Mr. McArdle in AARP’s Reply in Support of Dismissal. “Plaintiff’s chronological outline of events does not come close to showing ‘severe’ or ‘pervasive’ conduct that created an ‘intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment’ necessary for a hostile work environment.”

What Ms. Dodgen may have experienced is a metaphorical “death by a thousand cuts,” according to Ms. Hardaway.

“As I was reading it, I wondered if this is an instance where the majority of those who don’t have to deal with discrimination based on race or gender feel like microaggressions are somehow things that either aren’t real or something that we should just deal with and not be so ‘sensitive’ about,” she said.

Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, defined microaggressions to National Public Radio as subtle, intentional or unintentional comments or conduct that indicate some sort of bias to a protected class.

“It may be one thing for family members to poke at each other,” Ms. Hardaway told Pacer Monitor News. “It’s a whole other thing when an outsider does it. The fact that in a culture people deal with microaggressions within their culture misses the distinct, and most relevant point, which is for marginalized populations in majority settings to deal with micro-aggressive members of the majority culture or majority demographic is not the same. There is a false equivalency.”

The complaint alleges that on June 11, 2020, during a companywide virtual townhall, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins confirmed that there was racism within the AARP as it relates to its employees. The lawsuit further alleges that Jenkins said she had seen instances where African-American employees received less merit pay and fewer promotions even though they were as qualified as their white counterparts.

At that same presentation Edna Kane Williams, AARP’s senior vice president for multicultural leadership, reportedly confirmed that she knew that microaggressions against African-Americans and other employees of color occurred frequently within AARP. 

“My concern is that what the defendants are basically asking the court to do is to substitute their judgment for that of the plaintiff and that’s a tough thing,” Ms. Hardaway added. “I would hope that most jurists would not be inclined to substitute their judgment for what’s severe and hostile enough, and instead would want to understand what happened as a result of the defendant’s conduct.”

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