Discrimination lawsuit filed: Former Brownsville South Padre Island airport assistant director claims retaliation

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A view of the facade of Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Shaun J. Kelly, former assistant director of the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, filed a lawsuit against the city of Brownsville on July 21 alleging that he was fired for being gay.

The suit, which the city has asked the judge to dismiss, was filed in Cameron County 444th District Court.

Kelly was employed by the city from April 18-Nov. 15, 2022. The plaintiff claims that, despite no concerns or criticisms being expressed by airport or city management or anyone else about his job performance, and his successful completion of the required six-month probationary period, he was called into an impromptu meeting on July 14 by Perla Cepeda, the city’s director of Organizational Development and Human Resources, who informed Kelly that then-airport director Bryant Walker was “displeased with him,” according to suit.

In the meeting, Cepeda told Kelly that Walker wanted to place him on a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP) despite the absence of prior complaints, “progressive discipline” or reprimands regarding Kelly’s job performance, according to the suit. Kelly claims that in the meeting, in the presence of airport Human Resources Manager Laura Hernandez, he detailed “mistreatment that Plaintiff was subjected to because of his sexual preference of being an openly gay man.”

Kelly had been named to the city’s LGBTQ Civil Rights Task Force on June 21, according to the suit.

The plaintiff claims that during the June 14 meeting Cepeda told him she would convey his comments to Walker and discuss the reasons for the PIP. After hearing nothing back from Cepeda or Hernandez, Kelly on Sept. 8 filed a complaint against Walker for “sexual orientation discrimination (gender),” in which he claimed Walker and other airport employees “have made some derogatory comments that were not friendly towards the LGBTQ+ family.”

On Oct. 8, Kelly also filed a retaliation complaint against Walker. Both complaints were submitted to Cepeda and Hernandez, according to the suit.

The plaintiff said that on Oct. 24 he received letters from Hernandez informing him that the complaints against Walker had been deemed unsubstantiated. Further, Hernandez hit Kelly with a sexual harassment complaint “regarding an accusation made by a male employee against Plaintiff,” according to the suit. Kelly alleges that instead of taking his complaints seriously, the city further discriminated against him for being gay and retaliated against him for “opposing workplace discrimination.”

Kelly, who was suspended without pay on Oct. 25 and terminated on Nov. 15, “believes and will rebut” the city’s stated reason for suspending him without pay and firing him as “false and pretextual,” and in violation of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, according to the suit. Kelly filed a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) Division of Civil Rights on Nov. 3, 2022, and filed the suit against the defendant, the city of Brownsville, on July 21, 2023, after receiving a “Dismissal and Notice of Right to File Civil Action” letter from TWC’s civil rights division.

He is seeking monetary relief over $250,000 but not more than $1 million for “lost earnings and special damages” and “past and future mental anguish” as well as to cover attorney costs, according to the suit, which demands a trial by jury, though the court had not issued a docket control order to set dates for the discovery and trial as of press time.

In its answer submitted Sept. 1, the city denied the plaintiff’s allegations and called upon Kelly “to prove his allegations by a preponderance of the evidence as required by the laws of the State of Texas.” The city claims that any loss or damages alleged by Kelly were the result of his “failure to use reasonable efforts to mitigate such loss or damages,” and that the plaintiff’s claims are “barred … by applicable statutes of limitations.”

The city asserts that, counter to Kelly’s claim, he did not exhaust all administrative remedies prior to filing suit, failed to follow the city’s charter notice, is not entitled to recover back pay according to the Texas Labor Code, and “was terminated for lawful reasons.”

“Defendant asserts that it has published and has in place policies to prohibit and to promptly address unlawful discrimination and retaliation … and at all times acted with respect to Plaintiff in a good faith effort to enforce such policies and to prohibit unlawful discrimination and retaliation,” according to the city’s response.

The city asked that the court dismiss the plaintiff’s claims “with prejudice,” meaning the case couldn’t come back to the same court, and deny all monetary relief sought by the plaintiff.

In a brief statement to the Brownsville Herald, the city said it “did not treat Mr. Kelly any differently than any other similarly situated employee” and that “further, the city had legitimate, non-discriminatory, and non-retaliatory grounds for its actions against Mr. Kelly.”

The terminal at Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport is seen Friday, May 15, 2020. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)