Former Missouri Department of Transportation employee Elaine Justus has sued the department and the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, alleging age discrimination. She is asking for unspecified damages.
Circuit Judge Randall Jackson has been assigned to hear the case and has scheduled a hearing for July 9.
Ms. Justus worked at the Northwest office in St. Joseph from 1997 until Jan. 31. During most of that time, she was the public affairs manager and then the community relations manager.
According to court papers, she performed her duties that met and often exceeded expectations consistently, earning positive remarks on job performance. And she received no written or oral reprimands.
In a highly publicized effort to save funds, the Highway Commission and the Transportation Department sought to save money by reducing their number of state employees.
The complaint states that as part of its efforts, the department developed a “Five-Year Direction” plan, which included identifying employees by age and tenure. The list was to be used in discussions, strategies and tactics to achieve staff reductions.
At the St. Joseph office, Don Wichern, district engineer, allegedly had the list of his employees sorted in order of retirement eligibility, based on age and tenure. The department then created a “Bolder Five-Year Direction” plan starting in March 2010, giving district engineers increased power to demote, discharge and appoint.
During a 2011 quarterly review, Ms. Justus stated that Mr. Wichern rated her as highly successful and outstanding. But he also asked the plaintiff her age, even though he knew her approximate age.
A month later, Mr. Wichern told Ms. Justus she wouldn’t be reappointed to her job. Three days later, she filed a grievance, alleging age discrimination. Meanwhile, the district engineer demoted Ms. Justus to a lower compensated position.
Court papers state that Mr. Wichern proceeded to move Ms. Justus from her office and ordered her to work out of a storage room. The room allegedly had mold contamination, was difficult to heat and needed air purification.
The department also made Ms. Justus train her replacement, who allegedly had inadequate skills to perform the job, the suit says. Ms. Justus performed her duties at home until terminated in January.
Mr. Wichern declined to speak to the News-Press about the issue because of an internal investigation and the lawsuit.
Bob Brendel, a spokesman for the department, said there would be no comment at this time.
Ms. Justus will be represented by Kirk Rahm, an attorney in Warrensburg, Mo. Several years ago, he successfully represented Kyle Carroll in a wrongful termination of employment suit against the Missouri Department of Conservation and its commission.