TAMPA — Soon after she went to work as an engineer for the city of Tampa, her boss praised Xiaojun Li for helping save taxpayers at least $700,000.
That didn't last long. A few months later, the working relationship soured. Li's employment probation was extended. She complained to human resources about what she asserted was harsh treatment and anti-Chinese remarks from her boss. He consulted the same department over what he described as her underperformance. After eight months on the job, Li was fired.
Now, six months after Li sued the city claiming she was discriminated and retaliated against, the city proposes to settle her case by paying her $35,000 and reinstating her as an engineer.
Li has a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering from the University of South Florida. She had 10 years of experience as a professional engineer when the city hired her in June 2009.
Within a few months, Brent Morris, then the city's chief engineer in the Stormwater Department, commended Li, remarking that her expertise had saved the city $750,000, her suit contends.
The city counters that the savings were $700,000, that she was only one member of a team responsible for the savings and that her performance was "overall deficient."
After that, Li — the only female engineer and the only Asian engineer who reported directly to Morris — said he began to treat her differently.
Her lawsuit alleges that he verbally abused her in front of other employees, but did not treat male, non-Chinese engineers the same way; that he imitated and mocked people he met with who had strong, "non-American" accents, and that Li, who has a strong accent, found the imitations to be "offensive and discriminatory"; and that he told a co-worker that since Li was with the city, he did not have to talk to "those Chinese in the county."
Her probationary period was extended for 90 days but she was fired about 60 days into it, in February 2010. This came after Li was in a car crash, and there was more friction about whether she had to bring a doctor's note to return to work, whether Morris delayed approving her leave requests for physical therapy and doctor's appointments, and whether she was denied a training opportunity.
In response to Li's allegations, the city described Morris in court pleadings as a "demanding supervisor" with "high expectations for all of his employees," but it denied each of her specific allegations of mistreatment, discrimination or retaliation.
The case went to mediation. The City Council is scheduled Thursday to consider the resulting settlement proposal.
In settling the case, the city is not admitting liability but is making a decision about the potential costs of moving forward, City Attorney Julia Mandell said Monday. Officials concluded it could be cheaper to settle.
"When you get into court, you never know what's going to happen with a judge or you never know what's going to happen with a jury," Mandell said. "The potential for liability doesn't come because you believe you have a bad set of facts or can't prove them. It's that there's that unknown."
In exchange for Li dropping her claims, the city would:
• Rehire her as an engineer at a salary of $64,105. (She was making $60,944 when fired.)
• Pay $35,000 for her legal fees.
• Void two negative reviews and the notice of dismissal in her personnel file.
• Give credit back to her original hire date for her pension.
If Li does return to the city, she won't have to work with Morris. In 2011, City Hall decided that the Public Works Department should absorb the Stormwater Department to save money. The stormwater director and Morris were among the employees to be laid off in the consolidation. Rather than be laid off, Morris gave the city notice and resigned.