Houston Community College faces $100M alleged racial discrimination lawsuit

Houston Community College is facing a $100 million lawsuit that alleges racial discrimination.

HOUSTON – Houston Community College is facing a $100 million lawsuit that alleges racial discrimination.

The lawsuit, filed in the Texas 164th District Court in Houston, is on behalf of hundreds of Black present and former employees of HCC, according to a news release issued by a company representing those filing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that, under the leadership of Chancellor Cesar Maldonado and the Human Resources director Janet May, Hispanic people received preferential treatment.

A news release notes that the lawsuit “contains an actual email chain created shortly after Maldonado’s appointment, which states ‘Now we (Hispanic people) are going to receive preferential treatment.’”

“The Plaintiff is the victim of a well-developed, systematic, entrenched and wildly successful campaign of race and sex discrimination against top level Black employees at HCC. This dreadful ‘campaign’ has resulted in the dismissal, demotion and/or termination of Blacks at alarming disproportionate rates,” the lawsuit reads.

The news release says the suit alleges since Maldonado’s arrival, 90% of the longtime Black professionals at HCC have either been terminated or demoted, while there has been a 50% increase in Hispanic hires and promotions. The suit also claims while 90% of tenured and experienced Black employees have been displaced, only 10% of similarly tenured white employees have been displaced.

The news release says the lawsuit also alleges Maldonado and May used a variety of tactics to get rid of Black employees.

“These tactics include, among many others: telling a black male that a white woman’s word was more truthful than his word; when a white person complains, believing them, but if a black person complains doubting them unless corroborated; ‘padding’ black employee personnel files with false complaints to be used later as pretexts for firing them; when black employees are accused of sexual harassment, believing the complainant – but if the complaint is made by a black person, doubting them until HHC can corroborate; using the term ‘transformation’ as a cover for getting rid of black employees; and forcing black employees to take leaves of absence without cause to later use as grounds to terminate the black employee,” the new release read.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is 55-year-old Zelia Brown, who claims she was forced to take a leave of absence when she complained about missing grant money at HCC.

“This is a pattern. It’s deliberate and when you don’t go along with it — you’re ostracized,” Brown told KPRC 2 Friday night. “Whether it is demoting them by pay, placing them in a lower-level position, creating schemes to states that they are doing something they have not done to basically tarnish their image.”

In the lawsuit, she claims she reported that the grant funds had been misused or taken to the federal government. After federal investigators notified HCC officials they were going to investigate Brown’s allegations, she was immediately told not to return to work and to take a leave of absence, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit further contends her locked grant office was rummaged through while she was on this leave of absence.

The news release notes, citing the lawsuit, that “although HCC is said to have later asked her to return to work, the return was conditioned on her accepting a false complaint that she had created a hostile work environment and presumably remain silent about the missing grant dollars. Brown refused to remain silent and filed suit.”

“Every avenue I would go down, [HCC leaders] would present an obstacle,” Brown said.

Brown resigned in March of 2020 and said there are many who have come forward to her about this.

“There are dozens who have come forward,” Brown said.

Brown is asking the court to approve a class-action lawsuit against HCC on behalf of all Black employees who have been terminated or demoted since Maldonado became Chancellor in 2014. It is estimated that the number of class members will be in the hundreds with each member seeking individual damages in the case. Brown is represented in the lawsuit by Benjamin L. Hall, III, the former Houston City Attorney under Mayor Bob Lanier and former mayoral candidate.

“Ms. Brown is one of the more recent casualties of what appears to be a modern-day Jim Crow environment at Houston Community College for black executives,” Hall is quoted as saying in the news release. “She is a brave lady to stand up to power and speak the truth. We feel confident there are more victims of HCC’s discriminatory policies who will come forward to tell their stories as well.”

KPRC 2 reached out to HCC for comment but they said as they have not yet been served with legal notice, they will not comment on the lawsuit yet.

About the Authors:

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.