An African American sanitation worker is facing off at trial against Sacramento County and its waste department, alleging his bosses discriminated against him for years and then targeted him for intimidation and payback when he complained about the treatment before he was finally fired two years ago.
The attorney for Michael Asberry, who worked more than 10 years as a truck driver for the county’s Department of Waste Management and Recycling before he was sacked in 2016, alleges the treatment Asberry faced was commonplace and part of a long pattern of discrimination against black employees in the nearly all-white department.
Asberry filed his discrimination and retaliation lawsuit in 2016.
“Mr. Asberry wanted to drive. He wanted to promote,” his lawyer, employment attorney Jill Talfer, told jurors in her opening statement Monday before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Russell Hom.
Talfer later said jurors would see a “systemic problem in waste management,” in asking jurors to award Asberry more than $500,000 in lost wages and an unspecified amount for “substantial” suffering.
But attorneys for Sacramento County countered in their filings that Asberry was a bad driver who didn’t climb the ranks because of accident and attendance problems as well as a history of poor interviews and job performance before his firing two years ago.
“Race and retaliation has nothing to do with Plaintiff’s discipline, termination and failure to promote,” attorneys for the county wrote.
Asberry thought he would have the chance to drive and rise through the ranks, Talfer said in her statement and in trial briefs.
Asberry was hired in 2005 as a collections equipment operator — a driver of neighborhood cleanup trucks for the department’s South Yard — after successful years as a sanitation truck driver at a previous employer.
But Asberry was also tapped regularly for shifts at the department’s backbreaking can yard — where many of the department’s few African American workers were assigned — and other assignments by a supervisor who formerly ran the department’s Kiefer landfill, a facility with its own history of racial tension and racial discrimination lawsuits while under his watch, Talfer said.
Asberry also was “set up to fail,” Talfer said, by being told to “jump trucks,” the practice of driving different trucks on different routes each day. Many times, Talfer said, Asberry drove routes usually assigned to more senior drivers, but at his lower pay grade.
A driver, unfamiliar with rig and route, would also be more likely to become involved in accidents, Talfer said.
Asberry was involved in seven accidents during his nearly 11 years on the job, according to court documents. Five occurred while jumping trucks and driving the routes of a senior driver.
Nearly all led to disciplinary action. One notice, months after Asberry’s first incident in 2010, was sent to his home while he was on stress leave caring for his cancer-stricken wife. The discipline had been increased from counseling memo to a formal letter of reprimand while he was away, Asberry alleged in court documents.
No explanation was given, his attorney argued.
Another accident on a jumped truck route — and more discipline — followed in 2011.
When Asberry complained that he was being treated unfairly, he was sent back to the can yard, was disciplined again for failing to bring safety equipment, Telfer told the jury, and was retrained behind the wheel by a younger, less experienced white driver he had previously trained. Asberry said the decisions demeaned him in front of co-workers.
Other driving incidents — and yet more discipline — followed in 2013, Asberry claimed, after he verbally complained to his superiors of discrimination and followed up with formal complaints to county human resources officials and a September 2013 letter to the county’s Board of Supervisors.
“I believe management is attempting to silence me by intimidating me on my job,” Asberry wrote.
By November 2015, Asberry was being walked off the job site by a supervisor. He would be officially terminated the following February.
The trial continues Wednesday.