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City sends a warning to Dallas Arboretum over case involving email signature pronouns

A former Dallas Arboretum employee alleges she was fired in part because she included prounouns in her email signature.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
A former Dallas Arboretum employee alleges she was fired in part because she included gender pronouns in her email signature.

A discrimination complaint from a former Dallas Arboretum employee says her use of gender pronouns in an email signature contributed to her firing. Her case has drawn a cautionary letter from the city.

A complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the City of Dallas by the employee alleges discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.

The employee, a genderqueer lesbian who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, was fired in May 2021. She said that in the runup to her dismissal, the arboretum told her and others to stop using their pronouns in email signatures, in pins they wore, and when introducing themselves.

“Prior to that time, the arboretum had no standardized email signature block for employees and many employees included quotes, sayings, or Bible verses in their email signatures,” the complaint said. The quotes, sayings, and Bible verses remained even after management’s order for standardized signatures.

The complaint says a new supervisor later wrote up the employee for skipping a managerial meeting she and others often missed because of other work duties. A few days later, she was terminated.

The employee filed the complaint with the EEOC and the City of Dallas’ Fair Housing Office in November.

The EEOC does not confirm or deny when complaints have been filed against an employer. The legal group Lambda Legal published the complaint online last month. It was originally reported in the Dallas Voice.

Terry Lendecker, the arboretum’s vice president of public relations, image and branding, declined an interview request.

“We haven't received anything from the EEOC yet,” Lendecker wrote in an email. “But we also don't comment on personnel matters.”

Dallas’ role

Dallas Parks and Recreation Department Director John Jenkins sent a letter on January 19th to Mary Brinegar, the arboretum's president and chief executive officer. Jenkins wrote that he had seen the Voice article and the city “takes these matters seriously.”

He referred Brinegar to nondiscrimination language in the city’s contract with the arboretum. Failure to comply, the agreement says, can lead to complete or partial cancellation or suspension of the contract.

Jenkins declined an interview with KERA. A statement from the department said organizations with city contracts or management agreements are expected to follow nondiscrimination laws.

Councilmember Paula Blackmon, whose district includes the Arboretum, also declined to discuss the case while the complaint process was ongoing.

The city owns the arboretum’s 66 acres — prime real estate along the eastern shore of White Rock Lake. A spokesperson with the parks department said the city contributed $374,393 to the maintenance and operation of the Arboretum this year and plans to contribute $424,393 next year.

Legal landscape

Dallas City Code bars discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

Lambda attorney Shelly Skeen, who is representing the employee, said the penalty for violating Dallas’ nondiscrimination ordinances is a fine of $200 to $500 that goes to the city.

The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in 2020 that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay or transgender employees from employment discrimination.

That ruling, along with one last year in a Texas’ appeals court, gave legal protection to LGBTQ workers under state law as well, even though the Texas Legislature has not passed a law barring anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace.

If the EEOC finds evidence of discrimination, that could ultimately lead to the employee winning compensation for lost wages and mental anguish.

Skeen said her client doesn’t want a big payday or to return to her job. Instead, she wants the arboretum to adopt workplace policies and training that makes the garden more inclusive for LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups.

"Just because you change the law doesn’t change hearts and minds,” Skeen said.

She said this week that a second former employee filed an EEOC complaint, although she did not say on what grounds.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.