Mesa County is denying that it engaged in any age discrimination layoffs, but it did reach settlements with two former county employees last year over discrimination claims, according to court documents in a lawsuit filed against the county.
In a federal lawsuit filed by a 26-year veteran of the county's information technology department, Debra Bouricius alleges that the county and its three commissioners tapped her and five other IT workers for layoffs in 2016 because of their ages, while retaining other department workers who were younger. The workers chosen to be laid off all were in their late 40s to late 50s.
Bouricius, who now lives in Lyons, was 57 years old at the time of her layoff.
"Mesa County chose to terminate the oldest person with each job title affected by the IT Department layoff," the lawsuit claims. "Though Mesa County's written policies require it to base layoff termination decisions upon the job performance and special skills of individual employees, Mesa County failed to consider any objective performance criteria in selecting employees to be laid off from the IT Department. Mesa County has not articulated any objective performance criteria that is used to select employees to be fired."
The suit points to two settlements the county reached with two other IT workers who were involved in the same layoff, Rick and Janine Corsi. Both were paid settlements of $62,500 each after they filed complaints with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In December 2017, that panel determined both had "probable cause" to proceed with their complaints.
In its response brief in the Bouricius lawsuit, the county said those two settlement agreements are "improperly referenced ... because Mesa County has not agreed to make any proceeding regarding any individual named Rick Corsi and/or Janine Corsi public matters."
The agreements, signed by Rick and Janine Corsi and then County Administrator Frank Whidden, call on the couple not to disclose the terms and conditions of the agreements, which "shall not be construed as an admission by the parties of any wrongdoing or violation of any applicable law."
Bouricius' lawyer, Denver civil rights attorney Paula Greisen, said she obtained the settlement agreements through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
"They tried to say some of the stuff was confidential," Greisen said. "There's no grounds for making them confidential."
In an email to the Daily Sentinel, County Attorney Patrick Coleman said he could not discuss the reason for the Corsi settlement but emphasized that "the settlement specifically states that the County does not admit to violating the law."
The settlement agreements call on Rick and Janine Corsi to release the county or any of its employees from numerous types of discrimination claims, from breach of contract to violations of any law related to their relationship as a married couple.
Of the 18 claim types cited in the settlement, only age discrimination was highlighted in bold lettering.
As for the Bouricius complaint, Coleman said an agreement regarding settlement was not reached and Bouricius chose to pursue remedies through the lawsuit.
Greisen said the other three people who were laid off — David Barnett (then 47 years old), Carey Stieb (49) and Crislynn Howerton (59) — did not file complaints with the commission or file lawsuits.
In a deposition taken last month, Whidden said he decided to lay off some workers because, at the time, the county was facing a $1.4 million budget deficit the following year (2017), and covering that shortfall could more easily be done though downsizing staff.
Whidden, who abruptly resigned his post last week after being on paid administrative leave for two months for undisclosed reasons, said he made a list of people the IT department "absolutely" could not do without. Anyone not on that list was let go.
"I didn't look at, OK, somebody's been here 20 years and they should stay and somebody else has been here 10 years and they should go," Whidden said in the deposition. "I did not use that as a basis of evaluation ... except for Rick (Corsi). As a longstanding manager, it did occur to me that he had been there a very long time, and you had a husband and wife situation."
Whidden said he didn't like the idea of having a married couple working in the same department, but that was something that occurred before he started working for the county.
He signed both settlement agreements, but said in the deposition that only the commissioners had the authority to approve the settlement amounts, something that was not discussed or voted on in a public meeting.
Whidden was first hired by the county to head its IT department in 2011, later going on to be deputy county administrator for resource management before becoming county administrator in 2014. He continued to serve as head of the IT department as well as the county's human resources director until resigning as chief administrator on Friday.
Whidden said he didn't feel comfortable laying off one Corsi without including the other, saying "it was too high of a security risk" to the county to allow one to stay.
The lawsuit also alleges that the county violated state law because the county commissioners didn't approve the layoffs in an open public session. Whidden, however, said he had blanket authority from the commissioners to do so, saying he obtained that permission after talking to each one individually outside of a public meeting.
"I had spoken to the commissioners, because they had tasked me with finding the budget shortfall that we were facing if we didn't make changes," Whidden said in the deposition. "My understanding was that when they told me that — and I told them that I was going to make layoffs, that they commissioned me to move forward, and that was my understanding of I had their approval to move forward."
Whidden said he did not reveal the names of those selected for layoff with the commissioners or Coleman, whom he asked beforehand to review the layoffs to be sure there wouldn't be any legal issues with them.
Whidden said the layoffs in the IT department were the only ones he approved. He said the remainder of the 2017 budget shortfall was made through other staffing reductions made by Public Works Director Pete Baier, who now is acting chief administrator, and then County Clerk Sheila Reiner, who helped the county meet its budget cutting goals by closing DMV offices in Clifton and Fruita.
Commissioner John Justman, who also was deposed as part of the lawsuit, said the commission did what it had to do to balance the county's budget.
"We had to cut back somewhere because of our budget situation," Justman said in the partially redacted deposition. "So I'm not saying I like it, but we had to do something, so — that's what we did."