Former city of Tampa employee says she was fired over pregnancy leave

She had a disability and a miscarriage. In a lawsuit, she claims the city discriminated and retaliated when she took leave.
Aerial photo of Downtown Tampa overlooking the Tampa Riverwalk and Hillsborough River is pictured in April 2022.
Aerial photo of Downtown Tampa overlooking the Tampa Riverwalk and Hillsborough River is pictured in April 2022. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 14|Updated Nov. 14

TAMPA — A former executive aide in Tampa’s Mobility Department is suing the city, saying she was subjected to “a campaign of retaliation” and discriminated against over her disability and pregnancy in violation of state and federal civil rights laws.

Scarlett Lopez alleges the city wrongly demoted and later terminated her in August 2022 after she returned from disability-related leave and work-from-home accommodations due to a high-risk pregnancy that resulted in a miscarriage. She claims her bosses subsequently “thwarted” her efforts to get another job in the city, according to court records filed last week.

The lawsuit is the latest sign of trouble within the department, which has been praised by Mayor Jane Castor as a core component of her vision to transform the city but witnessed high-profile exits of senior female staff and allegations of a hostile workplace this summer.

“We can’t comment on pending litigation,” city spokesperson Adam Smith told the Tampa Bay Times.

Lopez, who did not respond to a request for comment from the Times by phone and text Monday, began working for the city in October 2018 as an assistant in the Human Resources Department.

She was promoted to senior executive aide to Mobility Department Administrator Jean Duncan in April 2020. The department, in charge of city streets, consists of five divisions: parking, operations, smart mobility, stormwater engineering and transportation engineering.

In 2021, Lopez received two pay raises following an “outstanding” annual performance review, according to her complaint filed in the United States District Court.

That October, she began experiencing “extreme back pain,” according to the complaint, and worked from home for several days, per Duncan’s recommendation. Following an MRI, Lopez was diagnosed with “severe Radiculopathy due to stress fractures and several bulging discs on her back.” She requested to work from home for four weeks until a follow-up medical appointment.

Her medical provider requested she work from home for another month, which Duncan said was “OK” so long as Human Resources approved, which it did, according to the complaint.

In late December 2021, department Director Vik Bhide wrote to Lopez that she was being reassigned to a new transportation administrative support position. Despite Bhide’s assurances the switch was temporary, Duncan told Lopez she was actively looking for her replacement because she’d been out of the office for “too long,” according to the complaint.

Vik Bhide, director of the city's Mobility Director, speaks during a press conference in July.
Vik Bhide, director of the city's Mobility Director, speaks during a press conference in July. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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In early January 2022, Lopez began reporting to Danni Jorgenson, transportation engineering manager. Two days later, she told her new boss she was pregnant.

In less than two weeks, Lopez, suffering from severe morning sickness, was admitted to the hospital half a dozen times and then took three days off, according to the complaint. She requested intermittent leave for the next six weeks because of her “extremely high-risk pregnancy.”

She returned to work in the administrative support position in early March. She learned someone new had been hired for the senior aide position she’d previously held.

In the complaint, Lopez says Duncan demanded she return her parking pass despite her explanation that the walk could exacerbate her pregnancy problems.

“Duncan did not believe our client was pregnant or had any medical conditions,” the complaint says.

The week after, Lopez was hospitalized. She suffered a miscarriage.

Lopez, “in fear of further retaliation and poor treatment,” returned to work four days after the loss of her child, according to the complaint.

Throughout her time on leave and working from home due to the back pain and subsequent pregnancy, Lopez claims in court records she did not receive verbal or written warnings or performance concerns from Duncan.

Related: Top staff exit Tampa mobility effort, one alleging hostile workplace

Less than two weeks after Lopez returned to work, she received a negative annual performance review, which her suit claims was “false and contrived.” Duncan described Lopez as withdrawn, unengaged and distracted. Lopez received a score of “below expectations” for her use of leave, according to the complaint.

She filed a grievance with the city in April 2022 over her treatment that was later ruled unfounded.

She also applied for the permanent version of the position she’d been holding temporarily and received an interview. Duncan and Bhide “personally contacted each of the hiring panel members and instructed them not to hire” Lopez, according to the complaint.

She applied for another city position, a payroll technician. A payroll supervisor told Lopez that Duncan had told the city’s chief financial officer not to select her, according to the complaint.

That August, Lopez says she was told her temporary position was being terminated.

People sit outside Armature Works and nearby the Tampa Riverwalk on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, in Tampa.
People sit outside Armature Works and nearby the Tampa Riverwalk on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Jorgenson recommended Lopez be kept on while her replacement was trained, but Duncan required she be terminated “as soon as possible,” according to the complaint.

In September 2022, Lopez was interviewed for the payroll position as one of the top five candidates. In October, she learned she was no longer being considered.

This summer, the department saw an exodus of three top-level female employees following the firing of Jorgenson in early June, who filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations. Jorgenson alleged the department director “continually chided” women in his office for occasionally taking advantage of remote work for child care reasons.

Three other senior female staff resigned: chief planner Alana Brasier, chief engineer Lara Bouck and program coordinator Brandie Miklus. Each, either in resignation letters or interviews with the Times, expressed concern about the department’s leadership.