Sexual harassment suit alleges head of SF Muni operations inappropriately touched assistant

The City’s top Muni official is under fire.

A lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Friday accuses John Haley, director of transit overseeing Muni, of inappropriately touching his senior management assistant, Sabrina Suzuki, and engaging in a pattern of harassing behavior over the course of Suzuki’s years-long employment under Haley.

In her lawsuit, Suzuki alleged Haley would lean “against her” inappropriately, and asked her to turn around to display her outfits to him, subsequently placing his hand on the back of her thigh “to position her backside in his direct view and (continuing) to touch her.”

Haley stopped her from obtaining the necessary training to advance her career, she also alleged, made untoward comments in front of employees, and described women’s appearances to her “in sexual ways.”

Suzuki declined comment. The SFMTA referred comment to the City Attorney’s Office.

SEE RELATED: Muni apologizes for citywide slowdown, promises fix

Meanwhile, an explosive anonymous letter sent to top Muni railyard managers in early September, which was later obtained by the Examiner, blasted Haley, alleging sexual harassment, racially charged comments and a temper that has led to a “hostile work environment,” which the letter writer directly tied to mismanagement of Muni operations leading to the citywide bus service slowdown that was first revealed in an investigation by the San Francisco Examiner.

While the letter writer remains anonymous, the Examiner has confirmed multiple employees working at a railyard in the Dogpatch called Muni Metro East recieved the letter via email during a scheduled visit by Haley. The Examiner also confirmed some allegations from the letter, including the sexual harassment allegation which surfaced later in Suzuki’s lawsuit.

When asked about the letter earlier in September, Haley told the Examiner, “I wouldn’t dignify an anonymous letter with a response.”

Roger Marenco, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, works every week with Haley to ensure Muni operators are treated fairly. Marenco responded to the allegations detailed in the suit by saying, simply:

“Holy shit. Wow.”

Marenco added that The City’s Human Resources Department has failed to adequately protect SFMTA employees who alleged sexual and racial discrimination in the workplace. He added, “I would even go as far to say a majority of complaints human resources receives don’t get treated with adequate seriousness.”

Haley joined the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in 2010 as director of transit, a position placing him in direct responsibility over the buses and trains ridden by nearly half of all San Franciscans every day. Haley hails from Massachusetts where he served as general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, spanning a 30-year transit career.

To read the lawsuit against John Haley, click here.

Few would speak on the record about Haley’s behavior out of fear of retaliation — even retired employees. Yet multiple SFMTA employees noted Haley is known widely for his gruff, tough demeanor and bombastic management style.

When employees mess up, they said, he gives a dressing-down worthy of Sergeant Hartman, the intimidating drill sergeant from the movie Full Metal Jacket.

The accusations against Muni’s highest ranking manager also come amid larger national conversations about sexual harassment and assault. A 2016 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted almost 60 percent of women have reported workplace harassment in the United States, but roughly three out of four people experiencing harassment never report it, often due to fear of retaliation, disbelief, or blame.

“I hear from different managers that he’s chauvinistic in terms of how he treats women managers,” said Irwin Lum, a retired former union president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. Yet at the same time, Lum said, he has demonstrated kindness to operators under his watch.

“I met with him after Ray Morante (a cable car operator) was hit by that drunk dude,” Lum noted. “He met with me and Ray Morante’s daughter and son” and helped Morante’s family receive workers compensation after the cable car operator died in 2016 from his injuries.

Notably, Suzuki filed a complaint about Haley’s behavior with the San Francisco Department of Human Resources, Equal Employment Opportunity Division, known commonly as the EEO. The EEO “summarily explained away and/or dismissed all of Plaintiff’s’s allegations in order to justify Defendant HALEY’s harassing and discriminatory conduct,” the suit alleges. The complaint against Haley was not the only charge to be dismissed by EEO that has been recently questioned.

Last week at a City Hall hearing, more than two hundred mostly black and brown city workers packed the Board of Supervisors’ chambers to allege systemic racial bias in San Francisco, which they alleged the EEO did not adequately handle.

“When the (EEO) got involved nothing got resolved,” said Carlos Rivera, an SEIU 1021 spokesperson. The union organized many of the workers to speak out against the human resources department. “The perpetrators are getting a slap on the hand, and sometimes even a promotion,” Rivera said.

Suzuki’s complaints also went unaddressed by the EEO, she alleged.

Suzuki joined SFMTA in February 2013 as a public information officer and was promoted in December 2014 as a senior management assistant. She began reporting directly to Haley in January 2015. A former television reporter with experience working at CBS affiliate KEPR in Washington state, Suzuki kept detailed notes on Haley’s behavior as far back as 2015, which are laid out in eight pages of roughly 40 specific allegations in the suit.

She was as an assistant to Haley but also served as a Transit Capital Committee representative and helped manage SFMTA audits by the California Public Utilities Commission, but alleged Haley subjected her to “harassing, discriminatory and retaliatory conduct” to stop her advancement.

Beginning in January 2015 and continuing through October 2017, Haley asked her to help him with his computer once a month. “On each occasion,” Haley “remained seated in his desk chair forcing (Suzuki) to stand in front of his computer while leaning in against her as she performed the requested task, thus encroaching on her personal space in such a manner that he was touching her.”

In May 2016, Haley asked about the pants she was wearing and told her to “turn around” and “let [him] see.” Suzuki performed a “quick half-turn” to “end the conversation” but Haley placed his hand on the back of Suzuki’s thigh mid-turn to stop her while her backside was in his direct view.

He continued to touch her.

Haley also said he wanted to “kill” coworkers, or expressed “wanting them dead,” the suit alleges. He said he wanted “these women” to “die in a fire,” including City Attorney Robin Reitzes and SFMTA communications staffer Lorraine Phelan.

Replying to those comments, City Attorney’s Office spokesperson John Cote said “We have not been served with the lawsuit, so we’re not going to discuss its contents. Once we are served with it, we’ll review it and respond in court.”

Haley often referred to Suzuki’s male colleagues as her “boyfriends,” which made her feel objectified, the suit read. He would speak about women in leggings, commenting that some women were “fat” and therefore “really should not be wearing them.” He once gestured to Suzuki and asked if she saw “that woman” nearby and gestured his hands in front of his chest “in a manner that suggested he was referring to the woman’s breasts.” He detailed to Suzuki the women he thought dressed nice, or whom he had crushes on, and women he saw “spilling out” of their dresses.

Haley on some occasions grabbed her hand “in haste,” and, at a November 7 work happy hour last year, walked up to Suzuki in front of her coworkers, took a drink out of her hand “without her consent and any warning,” took a sip and said “Mmm, that’s pretty good.” He then put the drink back in her hand and walked off.

“Each time, Plaintiff felt belittled and powerless as if Defendant HALEY was marking her as his property and under her control,” the suit reads.

When Suzuki began to complain her work advancement was being blocked by Haley, he began to make more confrontational comments.

Haley ridiculed a manager who would not perform a task in 2017 by saying he had “Suzuki Syndrome.” He would repeatedly ask “Who are you? Do you still work here?” when she made suggestions in staff meetings. He would “purposely” call her a wrong name, including calling her “Sarita,” the name of a former assistant he “did not think highly of.”

He repeatedly told Suzuki “you are too nice” to become promoted to the position of Transit Regulatory Manager, she alleged, despite her fulfilling the duties of the role already, managing tri-ennial audits with CPUC and the Federal Transit Administration. He later promoted a man whom Suzuki alleged was unqualified and who required support staff who had more experience in those needed qualifications.

Since she filed her complaint with EEO, Suzuki alleges Haley has retaliated against her by refusing to communicate with her, exluding her from meetings and significantly reducing her job duties.

While Suzuki’s complaint may seem to be an isolated incident, the anonymous letter sent to Muni railyard managers alleges Haley’s hot temper and other behavior are more widespread and may have even affected San Francisco’s transit.

On September 5, Haley visited a Dogpatch-neighborhood railyard called Muni Metro East. Following a television interview he gave to reporters, an unknown number of Muni managers received an anonymous email decrying his management style. Sources who requested anonymity told the Examiner an employee scanned the letter into a scanner in a common area, which was one of the few scanners that did not require an employee ID to access, and used it to send the email to multiple rail employees — perhaps as many as 20, sources said — during Haley’s visit.

The scanner sits mere feet from where Haley stood at one point during his visit.

When employees spotted the email from the scanner in their inboxes, they showed it to Haley, who sources said then held a copy of it in front of multiple employees asking, repeatedly, if they had written it.

The anonymous critique came weeks after Muni was revealed to be suffering a citywide slowdown, as Mayor London Breed publicly chastised the head of SFMTA, Ed Reiskin, for mismanagement of the agency. Breed’s office declined to comment, citing the complaint against Haley as a “personnel matter.”

SEE RELATED: Muni cuts training hours to boost number of train operators, combat driver shortage

The anonymous letter claims “the news stories about the problems at Muni are focused on the wrong person,” and states that though Reiskin is accountable as the “top guy,” Haley is ultimately at fault.

The letter contains numerous additional accusations that The Examiner could not confirm.

The anonymous letter writer also alleged Haley made racially charged comments, which Suzuki’s lawsuit also alleges.

“I ask that you interview senior staff at SFMTA, so that the truth comes out,” the anonymous letter writer plead.

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