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Utilities, city settle ex-coal handler’s lawsuit

WILLMAR — The Willmar Municipal Utilities and the city of Willmar have settled a discrimination lawsuit filed a year and a half ago in federal district court by former utilities coal handler Nefi Ibarra and will pay him $115,000.

In a lawsuit filed December 4, 2012, in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, Ibarra alleged he was terminated from the utilities because of his national origin — Mexican — and his religion — Mormon — in violation of state and federal civil and human rights laws.

Ibarra began work as a coal handler July 11, 2011, and was terminated Jan. 6, 2012.

The settlement came after U.S. District Judge John Tunheim denied a motion filed by the utilities and city requesting the court issue summary judgment and dismiss all of Ibarra’s claims.

Writing in a 33-page memorandum and order dated July 11, 2014, Tunheim denied defendants’ motion because a material issue of fact remains as to whether Ibarra was terminated as a result of illegal discrimination due to his national origin and religion.

Ibarra’s attorney, David Schlesinger of Minneapolis, told the Tribune this week that the court’s denial for summary judgment means that there was enough evidence that was in dispute between the parties that a jury should decide whether the defendants violated the law with respect to Mr. Ibarra.

“The court thought Mr. Ibarra had enough evidence on all of his claims that he should get to have a jury make a decision about whether or not he had been discriminated against,’’ said Schlesinger.

Schlesinger said Ibarra “feels good about the settlement and I think he feels gratified that the judge in this case denied the motion for summary judgment.’’

Prior to filing the lawsuit, Ibarra had filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January 2012. But the EEOC did not make any determination in the case “because we pulled the case from the EEOC process before they were able to do that and brought it to court,’’ said Schlesinger.

Schlesinger said he could not discuss whether the decision to withdraw the complaint from the EEOC process was Ibarra’s or whether he (Schlesinger) advised him to do so, citing attorney-client privilege.

However, Schlesinger did say that frequently it’s in the best interests of a plaintiff to move a case to court.

“It just moves things faster,’’ he said.

The Municipal Utilities Commission this week met with attorney Jason Kuboushek of Bloomington in closed session to discuss the settlement and reconvened in open session and approved the settlement agreement in which Ibarra will receive $115,000.

Kuboushek said the City Council will not need to take formal action to approve the settlement because the settlement was approved by the utilities commission.

Kuboushek said the settlement was reached by the parties because both parties saw that the case would go to trial Sept. 8.

“The court had ruled on its motion and both parties felt it was in their benefit to resolve this case now without any additional litigation costs,’’ he said.

Kuboushek said both parties came to a mutual agreement on the settlement amount.

“I can’t say that one party or the other was a driving factor in it,’’ he said. “The total amount is the amount both parties agreed upon.’’

Kuboushek said the utilities and city are pleased that the lawsuit has been settled.

“It puts an end to any litigation that stemmed from things that happened during the Bruce Gomm era at the utilities and the utilities is moving forward in a very positive manner,’’ Kuboushek said.

Gomm, also a Mormon, is the former utilities general manager who hired Ibarra and who was terminated by the utilities commission in March 2012. The termination was based on policy violations and findings in a report of an investigation into allegations of misconduct by Gomm.

That same month, Gomm filed a lawsuit against the city and utilities alleging discrimination, breach of contract, fraud and violation of the Open Meeting Law, and sought damages and reinstatement.

In early July 2012, the council and utilities settled the lawsuit and agreement to pay Gomm $200,000.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150