HSEMA Director Chris Rodriguez speaks from behind a lectern at Food and Friends in March 2020.
HSEMA Director Chris Rodriguez at a March 2020 press briefing

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A new lawsuit is resurfacing allegations of workplace discrimination against the director of D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, Chris Rodriguez.

The civil lawsuit, filed Dec. 15 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges former HSEMA employee Patrice White was abruptly fired in April of 2021 due to low performance review ratings that the suit says were “not justified based on her performance or accomplishments.” The complaint claims that White’s termination amounts to discrimination based on her age and race.

White says in the complaint that in February 2021, she met with HSEMA’s general counsel, who notified her of a poor performance rating and that the agency would seek to fire her. The complaint says HSEMA’s general counsel “repeatedly referred to Ms. White’s age, including asking about her birthday and when she would turn 62,” during the meeting.

White alleges that her termination was part of a trend under Rodriguez of showing preference for young, White workers at the expense of older, Black employees.

“Director Rodriguez made comments about wanting to fire older Black women, including Ms. White, and how he thought older Black women were not worth the amount he paid them, while not making the same comments about younger and/or Caucasian employees,” the lawsuit says.

White was a senior emergency management professional who worked at HSEMA for 33 years. She was 61 at the time of her termination. HSEMA declined to comment on the ongoing case and cited restrictions set by the District Personnel Manual when asked to provide the agency’s current racial demographics.

The complaint also alleges that HSEMA pressured White to give older and minority staff “unjustifiably low performance ratings, while not encouraging Ms. White to do the same to younger employees.” Similar allegations of receiving pressure to artificially lower performance ratings for older employees surfaced last year in a letter from a former high-ranking HSEMA employee, Dr. Donell Harvin.

Harvin filed an EEO complaint via letter against Rodriguez as he resigned in April 2021. Harvin, the former chief of homeland security and preparedness, chronicled accusations of repeated age, sex, and racial discrimination within the agency under Rodriguez’s direction, which prompted Harvin to resign. In his letter, Harvin writes that Rodriguez worked to pressure him and other high-level employees to give older Black, female HSEMA employees—including White—negative performance reviews. Harvin declined to comment on his letter or White’s pending lawsuit.

Following Harvin’s letter, D.C.’s Department of Human Resources launched a probe into HSEMA in June 2021, but its results were never made public. In February 2022, when news of the DCHR probe began to circulate, Mayor Muriel Bowser affirmed her faith and confidence in Rodriguez during a news conference

Much of White’s lawsuit calls attention to Harvin’s letter and its account of Rodriguez’s alleged discrimination against Black employees, as well as the director’s perceived animus toward older Black women. Harvin identifies White in the letter as one employee who faced severe discrimination. The letter also describes how Rodriguez openly asked officials from the senior leadership team: “How do we get rid of them? I can hire two people on their salaries,” in reference to White and another older Black, female employee.

“The environment at HSEMA is toxic for minorities,” Harvin writes in his EEO complaint. 

White’s attorney, Michal Shinnar, says those who worked with White have described her as a “talented, detailed-oriented” employee who went “above and beyond.” In her time at HSEMA, Shinnar says, White’s coworkers remembered her as “an outstanding employee [who] knew how to bring together interagency resources.”

White’s lawsuit also names the District as a defendant and alleges that D.C. failed to properly investigate allegations against Rodriguez.

Shinnar points out that Harvin’s letter was made public just as White was getting fired, yet D.C. still allowed Rodriguez to terminate her. She argues that the District had a legal obligation to take Harvin’s claims seriously and ensure discrimination was not taking place at the agency. 

Rodriguez underwent a performance review in Fall 2021, during which he “disappeared” from his semi-regular appearances at Bowser’s press briefings while the mayor considered whether to fire him or improve his management style, according City Paper contributor Tom Sherwood. But no public action has been taken against Rodriguez.

White’s lawsuit is asking for back pay, to be reinstated (or alternatively, an unspecified amount of “front pay”), and a court order to stop the alleged discrimination.