Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea’s construction company last year settled a lawsuit brought by a former employee who alleged a pattern of age and disability discrimination, federal court records show.
Barbara Johnson of Loveland, who worked as a human resources manager for O’Dea’s Concrete Express Inc. for five years beginning in 2011, sued the company in U.S. District Court of Colorado in 2019.
Johnson alleged that she had her bonuses reduced and faced a hostile work environment following a cancer diagnosis in 2014. She further accused O’Dea and other CEI executives of dissuading employees from filing workers’ compensation claims and terminating older employees, a pattern she said she was pressured into facilitating in her role as HR manager prior to being fired in December 2015.
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The case was settled under undisclosed terms in January 2021, court records show. O’Dea announced his candidacy in October. Reached by phone, Johnson declined to comment on the case or the terms of the settlement.
In a statement issued through O’Dea’s campaign, Aldo DelPiccolo, CEI’s general counsel, declined to address the specifics of the case, citing confidentiality provisions in the settlement agreement, but said that the company “handled the situation ethically and professionally.”
“CEI has done billions of dollars in projects, employing thousands of people for hundreds of thousands of man hours in all parts of Colorado, and we are proud of the reputation of ethics and professionalism we have built along the way,” DelPiccolo said. “These attacks are absolutely false.”
O’Dea, a first-time candidate, has made his private-sector experience a centerpiece of his pitch to Colorado voters ahead of the June 28 Republican primary, in which he faces far-right state Rep. Ron Hanks, and a potential general-election matchup against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in November. “He’s not a politician — people call him ‘The Boss,’” boasts one O’Dea campaign ad.
In her lawsuit, Johnson alleged that when she raised the issue of potentially illegal terminations of older workers to CEI leadership, O’Dea not only ignored her concerns but said the firings served to bring down the company’s insurance premiums.
“O’Dea asked the General Superintendent if the ‘old guys were a liability.’ The General Superintendent replied, ‘Yes,’” Johnson’s lawsuit alleged. “O’Dea told the General Superintendent to take care of it and ‘make it disappear.’ Johnson told O’Dea that she did not want to participate in the illegal activities but O’Dea made Johnson process the terminations.”
The lawsuit has not previously been reported.
‘Need to get rid of these old sick people’
Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2014, and received “reluctant” permission to both work from home and take periods of leave as she received treatment in the ensuing months, her lawsuit said. In December of that year, Johnson alleged, she received a “reduced” annual bonus, and “was told it was because she was not in the office.”
As late as June 2015, Johnson received a raise and a performance review, signed by O’Dea, indicating that she met or exceeded expectations in all of her duties. But within six months, she was no longer employed by CEI; she alleged she was shut out of the company’s computer systems and terminated, while CEI claimed that she quit, and sought to deny her unemployment benefits. In a 4-1 decision, a state appeals panel sided with CEI and denied Johnson’s unemployment claim in July 2016, according to court filings.
Separately, Johnson pursued legal action against CEI through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, ultimately receiving a “probable cause determination” and a notice of a right to sue from the EEOC in February 2019.
Her lawsuit claimed that CEI violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act in connection with her alleged termination, as well as whistleblower protections under Colorado law.
In a series of meetings in the fall of 2015, Johnson alleged, she’d witnessed CEI management “advising employees not to file workers’ compensation claims, and then firing those workers later.” In a meeting on employee benefits with O’Dea and CEI chief financial officer Dennis Anhorn, Johnson claimed she was told that the company “need(ed) to get rid of these old sick people so our medical insurance won’t be so high.”
Johnson accused CEI of retaliating against her for voicing concerns about these practices, culminating in the decision not to award her a bonus in December 2015.
In court filings, CEI acknowledged that Johnson wasn’t awarded a “full bonus” in 2014 and wasn’t awarded a bonus at all in 2015, but said that those decisions were based on merit.
“CEI never considered Ms. Johnson’s cancer in making any bonus decisions,” O’Dea testified in an affidavit. “Between the unlimited unpaid leave we provided Ms. Johnson, the 2014 discretionary bonus, and the 2015 merit raise, I believe CEI treated Ms. Johnson more than fair after her cancer diagnosis.”
A judge denied Johnson’s motion for summary judgment in July 2020, ordering the case to proceed to trial. Two weeks before the trial’s scheduled start date in December, however, Johnson and CEI notified the court that they were finalizing a settlement, and jointly filed to dismiss the suit the next month.