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Lawsuit by former secretary of Largo city manager alleges age bias

Brenda Francisco, then 60, was fired by Largo City Manager Mac Craig in 2007.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2007)

Brenda Francisco, then 60, was fired by Largo City Manager Mac Craig in 2007.

Steve Stanton's former secretary says her new boss fired her two years ago because of her age.

Largo City Manager Mac Craig, then 70, says he fired Brenda Francisco, then 60, because he didn't trust her, according to court documents filed late last month in Francisco's federal age discrimination case.

One reason: She told at least five city commissioners they shouldn't hire him as city manager, Craig testified.

"They came to me and told me they had been contacted and they thought that I should know that she was in effect working against me and (Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert) to have the job," said Craig, 72.

Commissioners hired Craig in July 2007. He became Francisco's boss three months after Stanton, who was fired as city manager after she revealed plans to become a woman.

Less than two weeks later, Craig fired Francisco.

Then, Francisco questioned whether her firing was in retaliation for her support of Stanton, now known as Susan. Craig disputed that.

Francisco's lawyer, Craig Berman, said commissioners sought Francisco's advice and she was merely expressing her First Amendment rights when she criticized Craig.

"Brenda was loyal to the city, not to any particular person. And that's why the city commission questioned her,'' said Berman, whose firm is in St. Petersburg.

At least four former and current commissioners said in sworn statements that Francisco made unsolicited comments to them that Craig was neither qualified nor experienced enough for the job.

Francisco, who worked 14 years for Stanton, and nearly 33 years for the city, filed an age discrimination suit July 14, 2008, after a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was dismissed. She now works as an administrative assistant for the SPCA Tampa Bay.

Francisco, 61, testified that her age played a role in her firing because, around six months after she was terminated, Craig hired a secretary almost 20 years younger. Francisco's annual salary was $49,200. Her replacement's salary is $38,800.

Berman says discrimination is clear because Francisco was the most qualified for the job and "knew the city probably better than any other employee."

But the city's attorney, Tom Gonzalez, says, "Nobody did anything to her on account of her age."

Francisco "testified that neither Craig nor any other employee made any comments about her age," the city's motion for summary judgment said.

Craig also offered other reasons why he didn't trust her. He testified that after "politicking" against him, Francisco told him she would be as loyal to him as she was to Stanton. He learned that she said the same thing to the other city manager candidate, he said.

Craig also alleged that about five or six years ago, Francisco told her husband, a city employee, about city business minutes after Craig had a discussion with Stanton.

The city also argued that the fact that Craig was 10 years older than Francisco "greatly weakens the inference of age discrimination."

The age of an employer can be a factor in such cases, but not a major one, said Dennis M. McClelland, a partner in the labor and employment group at Phelps Dunbar law firm in Tampa.

"It's certainly something I would present to a jury. I don't think its going to end the case," said McClelland, who is not involved with this suit.

The personnel files for Francisco and Craig's new secretary, Jo-Ann Gulliver, 43, both contain glowing reviews from their bosses.

The discrimination case is set for trial on or after June 15, but it may be pushed back by the recent filings. There's also a possibility the case won't go to trial.

After employers offer legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for firing an employee, the burden shifts back to the employee to show the reasons provided weren't the real reasons for the firing, McClelland said.

"Employers do frequently win on summary judgment," he said, "especially in federal court, where employees cannot prove that these reasons are false."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

FAST FACTS

March 24, 2007: City Commission fires former City Manager Steve Stanton

July 10, 2007: City Commission hires Mac Craig as city manager

July 23, 2007 : Craig fires Brenda Francisco

November 2007: Francisco files age discrimination charge with EEOC

April 2008: EEOC dismisses charge

July 14 , 2008: Francisco files federal age discrimination suit

April 30, 2009: Discovery is filed in the case

June 15, 2009: Tentative trial is set on or after this date

Lawsuit by former secretary of Largo city manager alleges age bias 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:31am]

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