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Pinellas bus driver who pepper-sprayed passenger sues transit agency

The bus driver said he was discriminated against based on race, religion and country of origin.

ST. PETERSBURG — A Pinellas County bus driver who sprayed a passenger with pepper spray last year is suing the county transit authority alleging discrimination and retaliation based on race, religion and country of origin.

Krishnamurthy Nadella filed the lawsuit against the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority last month, more than a year after he had a physical confrontation with a passenger and was fired.

Nadella was driving route 59 on the afternoon of March 29, 2019, when he said he felt threatened by an intoxicated passenger, according to agency reports filed by Nadella and his supervisor.

Nadella, who was born in India and is a U.S. citizen, said he and the male passenger got in an argument. The rider “began saying racist and abusive things to Mr. Nadella, asking him where he was from” and calling him a racial slur, according to the lawsuit filed June 8 in Pinellas Circuit Court.

“The drunk... started to curse me out and telling me to get out of his country,” Nadella wrote in an March 2019 incident report for the transit authority. “Then he aggressively started to block me so I can’t get out of my seat. I felt pinned down in my seat fearing for my safety.”

Nadella said he “showed him the mace and told him not to touch me.” When the man kept moving forward, Nadella said he sprayed him once in the face.

The man and another passenger got off the bus at the next stop “due to fumes,” Nadella said.

Pinellas bus drivers are not allowed to carry pepper spray while at work, agency spokeswoman Stephanie Rank said. Drivers go through a six-week training program that includes safety procedures and de-escalation training. They are taught to diffuse disputes before they get out of hand and to call for help if a situation escalates, Rank said.

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Nadella was fired on April 3, 2019. Director of Transportation Jeff Thompson cited a policy violation and three group offense charges in Nadella’s termination: possession of a weapon on company property; physical violence on company property; the use of profanity, obscene gestures and threats; and recklessness and/or negligence that endangers company employees, customers or members of the public.

“This confrontation was ultimately instigated by you,” Thompson wrote in the termination letter. “(The agency) believes you are entirely responsible for taking an otherwise ordinary interaction amongst bus customers and escalating it to the point where you ultimately engaged one of the customers in physical altercation.”

But in the lawsuit, Nadella said the customer instigated the confrontation and that he acted in self-defense. The suit lays out a history of disagreements between Nadella and Thompson in which Nadella said the transportation director discriminated against him based on his race and religion.

“Mr. Nadella only used the pepper spray as a last resort to protect himself from being attacked from behind while driving the bus,” the lawsuit states.

Nadella’s attorney, Gary Printy, said the underlying reason for the firing was his client’s race, religion and country of origin.

“If the same thing had happened with an employee who wasn’t from India or Hindu, that person would’ve been treated differently and would not have been fired,” Printy said.

Printy said examples of drivers who instigated fights but were not fired will come out later in the lawsuit.

Nadella is seeking back pay, front pay, damages and attorney fees. The transit authority filed a motion to dismiss the case earlier this week.

Union representative and former driver April Murphy said she saw the surveillance video, which is exempt from public record, as part of a transit authority hearing. She agreed with Thompson’s assessment that Nadella initiated the conflict with the rider, which she said started over a political conversation passengers were having in the back of the bus.

“It’s very important that we stay calm, very important, but it’s hard to do,” Murphy said. “Easier said than done.”

Related: Safety shields going in fast after second bus driver attacked in Tampa

She said many drivers would like to carry a weapon — either a gun, pepper spray or a club — to protect themselves, but they are not allowed to do so. The transit authority installed clear safety shields earlier this year to separate drivers from passengers.

“We haven’t really had any issues since we’ve had the enclosures,” Murphy said. “Those are a really good protection for our drivers. I’m really happy about that.”

The safety shields were not in place at the time of Nadella’s altercation with the passenger.