November 16, 2009 in Idaho

Lowe files gender-bias lawsuit against Idaho

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

Pam Lowe, former Idaho Transportation Department director, is shown here outside her lawyer’s office in Boise.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Idaho’s first-ever female transportation director was fired, in part, simply for being a woman, a lawsuit filed today charges.

Pam Lowe, who last week filed a “whistleblower” complaint against the state alleging that she was fired for resisting political pressure to favor a big campaign donor to Gov. Butch Otter, filed an amended complaint today bringing in six additional claims for violating her rights under both the U.S. and Idaho constitutions.

“Her gender was specifically referenced as a reason that she should not be promoted and/or that she would not be successful,” the lawsuit states. “Ms. Lowe’s gender was a contributing factor to the board’s decision to terminate her employment, in violation of the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution.”

Lowe’s legal filing in 4th District Court in Boise repeats her earlier allegation that Idaho Transportation Board member Gary Blick of Twin Falls said “no little girl would be able to run this department, or words to that effect” and asked, “What are we going to do when she decides to start a family?”

But Lowe, a professional engineer and 15-year department employee, said that wasn’t the only instance of gender discrimination she suffered at the department. “I have some other information that I think will probably come out as part of the trial process,” she told The Spokesman-Review.

Lowe’s six additional claims charge that the state Transportation Board violated both the U.S. and the Idaho state constitutions in three different ways: By engaging in sex discrimination, violating her right to equal protection; by firing her without citing any of the statutory reasons why a transportation director can be fired and without allowing her a hearing, violating her right to due process; and by impugning her good name with “false allegations of unsatisfactory job performance,” hurting her professional reputation and “foreclosing other employment opportunities.”

Until the board fired her in July, Lowe had received only positive performance evaluations. Her lawsuit quotes from her last evaluation, in which the board said she “excelled,” “identified over $50 million in savings that will be directed to improved highway operations,” and “is an excellent manager and has exceptional ability as a professional engineer.”

Lowe filed a tort claim against the state in August contesting her firing. The state had 90 days to respond to the claim by settling it, but that deadline came and went last week without any settlement.

“I didn’t want to end up here,” Lowe said. “I am disappointed that the state did not respond to the tort claim.”

The state now has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit; that time frame could expand if the state chose to shift the lawsuit to federal, rather than state, court. Gov. Butch Otter’s office has declined to comment on the case due to the pending litigation.

Kit Coffin, risk management program director for the state, reported that the full 90 days has run on the tort claim, and there has been no change in the status of Lowe’s claim against the state. “Statute allows claimants to deem a claim rejected if there has been no decision within 90 days,” Coffin wrote in an email. “Claimants may file suit after that time. It is not necessary to do so immediately, but they have the right to proceed if they wish. If a suit is filed and served, the state will respond according to the laws and rules applicable to such lawsuits.”

Lowe’s initial lawsuit was filed last week to beat an expiring statute of limitations on the whistleblower portion of the claim; the amended complaint now replaces the initial filing, and becomes the one to which the state must respond.

Lowe contends that she was fired because she insisted on cutting back a $50 million contract with a politically well-connected contractor to manage a string of bond-funded highway projects, with Otter’s then-chief of staff, Jeff Malmen, and Transportation Board Chairman Darrell Manning directly pressuring her to keep the big contract intact. Malmen hasn’t responded to requests for comment; Manning has disputed Lowe’s charges.

She also contends that transportation board members were so concerned about proposed legislation to turn the department’s director into a political appointee of the governor - removing their authority over hiring and firing the director - that they struck a deal to get rid of her if Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, who also received campaign contributions from the contractor, would drop the bill.

McGee has declined to comment on the pending legal case.

State law now says the transportation director serves at the pleasure of the board, which can remove her from office for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.” The board didn’t cite any of those factors in firing Lowe, instead saying it wanted to improve relations with the state Legislature.

The board first asked Lowe to resign just after the close of this year’s legislative session in May; she refused, instead demanding to know what she’d done wrong. The board then voted unanimously in July to fire her, and denied her request for a hearing to challenge her firing.

Lowe said she thinks the board’s actions all tied together with the sentiment Blick expressed when it was considering naming her director in the first place. “That sentiment was expressed by a member who is still on the board … that I’m just a woman,” she said. “I think they thought I’d just go away.”


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