WILLMAR - Former coal handler Nefi Ibarra has filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal district court against the City of Willmar and the city-owned Municipal Utilities alleging he was treated less favorably at the utility because he is Mexican and/or Mormon in violation of state and federal discrimination laws.

The utility, in an answer to the lawsuit, denies Ibarra was treated less favorably at work because he is Hispanic and/or Mormon. The city and utility say Ibarra failed to meet job requirements for his position.

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The lawsuit was filed Dec. 4, 2012, in U.S. District Court for the district of Minnesota in Minneapolis, but was the subject of a recent closed session of the Municipal Utilities Commission. Commissioners met July 8 with League of Minnesota Cities attorney Jason Kuboushek of Bloomington to discuss the lawsuit.

Ibarra summons and complaint

Kuboushek said a mediation session was held July 22 in Minneapolis with Ibarra but no settlement was reached and the case is continuing.

Ibarra is seeking damages of more than  $75,000. District Court Judge John Tunheim is assigned to the case.

Prior to the lawsuit, Ibarra filed an employment discrimination charge Jan. 26, 2012, with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission. The result of the investigation has not been announced, however.

Ibarra began working as a coal handler July 11, 2011, and was terminated Jan. 6, 2012. He was born in Mexico and was at the time of his employment the only employee of Hispanic descent and was one of three Mormon employees at the utility.

Immediately after being hired, Ibarra was asked to show documentation of his eligibility to work. When he showed his legal documents, the acting human resources professional noticed that his driver’s license and permanent resident card had two last names (Ibarra-Lopez), while his Social Security card had only one last name (Ibarra), according to the lawsuit.

The HR professional asked if Ibarra’s Social Security card was “real,’’ the lawsuit said. Bruce Gomm, who was general manager at the time, reviewed the documents and said they looked valid.

Ibarra said the following day the power production supervisor questioned Ibarra’s identity and told Ibarra to “fix’’ his Social Security card. In order to keep his job, Ibarra changed his name on the card, but claims he heard rumors that he was an illegal immigrant, according to the lawsuit.

The HR professional also asked how Ibarra knew Gomm, according to the lawsuit. Ibarra said they attended the same church. The HR professional said, “Oh, so you are Mormon,’’ the lawsuit said. It also states that Ibarra heard rumors that he got his job because he is Mormon.

The lawsuit states Ibarra was told he was being terminated because he was not meeting job expectations. However, Ibarra says he was meeting expectations and had been told so by his direct supervisor only one week before termination.

Gomm was terminated Feb. 27, 2012. As part of termination process, Gomm publically stated, among other things, that he had prevented the utility from engaging in “discrimination hiring issues with the ... coal handler,’’ and that there was “discrimination happening at the utility,’’ the lawsuit states.

The city and utility admit that Ibarra participates in the Mormon faith, that there were other employees who also participated in the Mormon faith, and that Ibarra was required to show documentation of work eligibility.

However, defendants say they are without sufficient information to admit or deny Ibarra’s claim he was told to “fix’’ his identification. Defendants also deny Ibarra’s claim of rumors.

The city and utility deny Ibarra was treated less favorably at work because he is Hispanic and/or Mormon. Rather, Ibarra failed to meet the requirements for his position.

In addition, the city and utility admit that Ibarra was terminated because he was not meeting the duties for a coal handler, and they deny Ibarra had been told by his direct supervisor a week before his termination that he had met his job expectations.

The defendants admit that Gomm made a public statement regarding his termination, but deny Ibarra’s other allegation.

The city and utility deny Ibarra has set forth any cognizable claim for relief under state or federal law and ask that Ibarra’s claim for relief be dismissed.