This Bad Boss Froze Out Her Employee as a “Non-Believer.” He Complained and Ended Up Working Next to a Urinal.
Rasean Johnson was a proud third-generation employee of the City of San Diego. He loved his job in the downtown City Clerk’s Office — until Sheila Beale became his supervisor.
A demonstrative Christian, Ms. Beale regularly proclaimed her religious beliefs in the workplace. According to a federal lawsuit filed by Mr. Johnson, she led “prayer sessions” during staff meetings, touted the virtues of attending church, and inquired about employees’ religious affiliations.
During one performance review, Ms. Beale instructed Mr. Johnson to read the Bible because “even good people go to hell if they don’t give their life to the word of God,” his complaint alleged. She told one of his direct reports to ignore him as a “non-believer,” according to the complaint, and she later assigned Mr. Johnson entry-level work after he refused to pray with her.
Mr. Johnson finally went to his labor union, the San Diego Municipal Employees Association. MEA filed a grievance with the city, accusing Ms. Beale of creating a hostile work environment and discriminating against Mr. Johnson and two other employees.
While the investigation proceeded, Ms. Beale stripped Mr. Johnson of his supervisory duties, reassigned his staff to another manager, and excluded him from projects, he said in his federal complaint. Even after the city had corroborated much of Ms. Beale’s alleged behavior, according to testimony, the only option it offered Mr. Johnson was a transfer to a different job site.
He reluctantly made the move, only to end up in a repurposed storage space with a hole that opened into the plumbing of a neighboring space: The men’s bathroom.
Sheila Beale is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Johnson filed a lawsuit against the City of San Diego claiming religious discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation. His retaliation claim reached trial in May 2019, and a federal jury awarded him $350,000. The parties have since reached a settlement.
Mr. Johnson had started working for the city in 2004 as a stock clerk in the Records Management Department, according to court documents. It took six or seven applications before he finally landed the job, Mr. Johnson testified, but working with the city was important to him. He was following in the footsteps of many relatives who worked for the city, including his grandfather and great-grandfather.
“It’s a family thing,” he said at trial.
At first, the atmosphere in the clerk’s office was “wonderful,” he recalled. He saw budding politicians launch their careers, and he was friendly with each mayor in office. He had a mentor in the deputy director of his department. He loved the work he did, especially his dream of digitizing records and making them available online. At trial, he called this project his “baby.”
Then Mr. Johnson began reporting to Ms. Beale, according to court documents — and the topic of religion suddenly entered the workplace.
On one occasion, Ms. Beale quizzed Mr. Johnson about Prop 8, a California ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage and later was found unconstitutional. Is it “okay if gays marry?” she asked, according to Mr. Johnson’s complaint. Hearing that Mr. Johnson had no problem with it, she told him he was “not a child of God.”
Another time, according to court filings, Ms. Beale singled out Mr. Johnson during a staff meeting because his relationship with his girlfriend was not “blessed,” she said — they weren’t “married under the Lord.”
By 2013, Mr. Johnson oversaw a six-person staff plus volunteers but still reported to Ms. Beale. Chafing and feeling marginalized by her religious zeal, he applied for a job with the nearby city of Chula Vista.
Mr. Johnson ranked highly among the applicants, according to court documents. During the interview process, however, he was shocked to see that Ms. Beale sat on Chula Vista’s Civil Service Commission and was a part of the hiring committee for the position. Mr. Johnson did not get the job — and after that, he testified, Ms. Beale’s religious scrutiny only grew.
A reckoning came the following year. In a deposition, Mr. Johnson recalled that Ms. Beale called him into her office upon his return to the office after a bereavement. She grabbed Mr. Johnson’s hands and began praying for him, he testified, but he rebuffed her and insisted on getting back to work.
Soon afterward, he said, Ms. Beale sent him to extract hundreds of archived records from the basement for scanning — a rote job usually performed by a records stock clerk, the same entry-level position Mr. Johnson had held a decade prior. Finally fed up, Mr. Johnson contacted his union and filed a grievance. Inevitably, Ms. Beale heard about his action.
“I was hurt,” she said at trial.
While the investigation was ongoing, Mr. Johnson claimed in court filings, Ms. Beale curtailed his authority and reassigned his staff elsewhere. He reported the retaliation to his union rep.
Then Ms. Beale learned that the city had granted Mr. Johnson’s request to be removed from her direct supervision. She informed Elena Mendoza, a co-worker of Mr. Johnson, that she’d serve as Mr. Johnson’s manager — but she testified at trial that she failed to tell Mr. Johnson that his request had been approved.
He found out the hard way: He e-mailed Ms. Beale and received an out-of-office reply that listed people to contact for various concerns. In the e-mail filed with the court, Ms. Mendoza was incorrectly listed with Mr. Johnson’s title: Imaging Supervisor.
“I was surprised,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “Typically, my name should’ve been right there.”
Ms. Beale testified that the e-mail error was “just an oversight.” Mr. Johnson, on the other hand, said he felt targeted.
Tensions grew. Mr. Johnson testified at trial that Ms. Beale stopped speaking directly to him: She didn’t return his “good mornings” and would ask Ms. Mendoza to relay comments to him even when all three were physically together. He was excluded from staff meetings and even from casual conversations, he said.
“I felt like an elephant in the room every time,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “If you ever felt that way, it’s not good, especially when you got your heart and soul in what you’re doing.”
After five months of investigation, Mr. Johnson received a letter saying the city had found sufficient evidence to support his allegation of a hostile work environment. By this point, however, Ms. Beale had relegated him to the basement to take inventory and mark boxes, he testified; his access to computer systems was limited, and some of his keys were taken. Ms. Beale remained closely involved in his management, even writing his performance evaluation the month after the investigation concluded — more typically a task for Ms. Mendoza, his new direct supervisor, according to testimony.
Despite city policy, Mr. Johnson didn’t get a mediation session to resolve his grievance, according to testimony. He was given only two options, he told the court: Put up with the situation, or transfer. Although he didn’t want to leave the clerk’s office, Mr. Johnson decided he had no choice.
He knew little about his new job, he testified, until he was told to report to the Public Utilities Department operation yard, where he would catalog water meters that were being taken out of service.
“It made me sick,” he told jurors. The only good part about it: “I got out from under Sheila Beale.”
At trial, Mr. Johnson described his new office as a “converted closet.” A hole in the wall allowed the smell from the men’s urinal next door to waft into his space every day. On rainy days or whenever there was a backup, Mr. Johnson testified, the smell was even worse.
Ms. Beale, meanwhile, testified that she felt “relieved” by Mr. Johnson’s transfer. “It was just a stressful situation,” she said.
Ms. Beale told the court that no one ever discussed with her the findings in the city’s 20-page investigative report into her behavior — although her boss, Elizabeth Maland, testified to giving Ms. Beale confidential “corrective action” in writing.
Ms. Maland also said at trial that she ordered department-wide training in response to the conflict over Ms. Beale’s conduct. Still, she admitted to telling the H.R. department that Mr. Johnson’s transfer would make things “better.”
In a deposition, Mr. Johnson said he felt his career had been “derailed.” He filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, after a period of investigation, received a letter giving him the right to sue the municipality he had worked so hard to join.
“I lost the ability to look at the city logo and be proud of it,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “I [used to feel] a sense of importance where I worked at. I felt a part of the team. Now I just take a piece of paper by the stacks and put it in the database and file accordingly.”
Although the jury found in Mr. Johnson’s favor, his monetary award was reduced to $300,000 because of a statutory cap on non-economic damages, commonly known as pain and suffering. The San Diego City Council subsequently voted to settle his case for $565,000, including attorney fees.
Sheila Beale remains a deputy director in the Office of the City Clerk, according to its Web site.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Johnson v. City of San Diego. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Mr. Johnson was represented by Smith Steiner Vanderpool, APC.