Donna Ferrell, who was hired as a bus driver in the summer of 2006 by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, filed suit last week against SEPTA over claims that she was wrongly tossed from her job of six years.
The plaintiff lost her job in September 2012 following an altercation with a passenger that occurred the month prior, the record shows.
On Aug. 25, 2012, while operating her bus, Ferrell was struck in the face by a male passenger who was upset by the fact that the woman refused to stop the bus earlier at an unauthorized stop, the lawsuit states.
Ferrell, “in shock,” reacted to the attack by throwing an object at the man, although she initially ended up missing him.
The driver again picked up the object and hurled it at the individual, according to the complaint.
Other passengers riding the bus at the time came to the plaintiff’s aide.
The mass transit agency ended up firing Ferrell based on what the woman calls false allegations that she had been fighting with a passenger.
“Plaintiff did not fight with a passenger,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff was assaulted by an angry passenger, who violently struck Plaintiff in the face when Plaintiff stopped to let the passenger off the bus.”
The entire incident, which lasted only eight seconds, was reportedly caught on bus surveillance video.
The complaint says that Ferrell merely reacted to the attack by defending herself “against a criminal” who assaulted her while she was performing her job.
Before the incident, the plaintiff, who had no prior disciplinary actions, was considered by her supervisors and peers as a “model” bus operator, the lawsuit states.
“Prior to this incident, Defendant never trained Plaintiff on how Plaintiff was to react when confronted with this type of incident where she was assaulted by an angry and unruly passenger,” the complaint reads.
At Ferrell’s unemployment benefit hearing, a senior SEPTA official told the referee that another bus operator who had had an altercation with a passenger was never terminated for the incident.
The transit agency also has records of other male bus drivers who have engaged in physical altercations with passengers and fellow employees who were not terminated but instead issued other forms of warnings, training or less disciplinary actions, the lawsuit states.
The complaint goes on to note that during Ferrell’s union arbitration grievance hearing relating to the woman’s termination SEPTA representatives admitted that the plaintiff was the victim of an unprovoked assault by a disgruntled passenger at the time of the incident leading up to the firing.
“Plaintiff has been a model employee for over six years,” the suit reads. “Plaintiff cannot be expected to turn the other cheek when assaulted. There are times when an employee may well exercise a right to defend herself against an assault by a passenger.”
Ferrell’s suit notes that some bus drivers have even been shot at by disgruntled passengers, proving the need for employees to be on guard while on the job.
The complaint further accuses SEPTA of having a practice whereby it unfairly discriminates against employees on the basis of gender.
The suit offers the story of a former female employee named Christine Smith, who was not involved in an accident, but was falsely accused by a male director of having been involved in one and failing to report it.
Smith ended up being fired by SEPTA, the lawsuit states.
The male bus operator who had Smith’s route before her had allegedly caused the physical damage to the bus but never told anybody about it.
“SEPTA has a history of treating male Bus Operators more favorably than female Bus Operators,” the complaint reads.
The Pennsylvania Record previously reported on Smith’s civil case.
The court docket in Smith’s case shows the matter was dismissed earlier this year after an undisclosed settlement was reached between the parties.
Ferrell’s case contains both state and federal counts of gender discrimination.
The transit agency is accused of violating both the Civil Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
The plaintiff seeks front and back pay, lost income and benefits, interest, costs, attorney’s fees and other relief.
She is being represented by Philadelphia attorney Olugbenga O. Abiona, who filed the suit on his client’s behalf on Nov. 15 at U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
The federal case number is 2:13-cv-06649-JS.
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