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PHEAA exec’s workplace discrimination lawsuit dismissed by U.S. judge


img_5110377_340After nearly four years of legal wrangling, a federal judge Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit by a former executive of the state’s student loan agency who claimed he suffered workplace discrimination because he’s Hispanic.

U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones III concluded that Erwin Thomas Vera, a one-time vice president with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, didn’t prove that his race influenced how he fared at PHEAA.

Vera claimed in his lawsuit that he was demoted because of his ethnicity and had suffered other race-related slights.

Jones’ dismissal decision was based on a 41-page recommendation by Martin C. Carlson, a federal magistrate judge who evaluated the case.

In suing PHEAA, Vera claimed that another agency executive had called him a “token minority” and had then displayed a Confederate flag at his office.

Also, the Harrisburg man contended that he had received an unfavorable performance review and was twice demoted, all based on racial motivations.

In his recommendation, Carlson noted that PHEAA had commissioned an independent review of discrimination complaints by Vera, who has worked at the agency since 1990.

That review, finished in January 2008, “expressed general concern about the overall lack of diversity within PHEAA, but concluded that…’Vera did not suffer any discrimination based upon his Hispanic background,’” Carlson noted.

He said Vera’s first demotion in 2006 followed problems in Vera’s loan processing unit that resulted from a massive rise in workload.

Although he was demoted from a vice president to an assistant vice president post and received a “does not meet expectations” performance review, Vera’s pay wasn’t cut and he got a $21,000 bonus that year, Carlson said.

As for the “token minority” comment, the other executive denied making it, but underwent diversity sensitivity training, Carlson noted. He said the Confederate flag was placed at that exec’s office while the official was away.

Vera’s second demotion, to a portfolio manager spot, occurred during the upheaval at PHEAA and other financial agencies during the 2008 crash of world financial markets, Carlson said.

Vera’s job was affected by a major downsizing at PHEAA and his pay was cut by around 8 percent, Carlson said, but Vera wasn’t the only assistant vice president to be demoted and many other PHEAA employees saw similar or even worse impacts.

“We..find no evidence that would support a finding that any of the employment decisions that PHEAA made with respect to Vera’s employment were animated by discriminatory motive,” Carlson concluded.

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