Jury Finds TCEQ Did Not Discriminate Against Former Employee

State employees testified that Shiyan Jiang, the plaintiff, was argumentative, dismissive and insulting to other staff.

Illustration/Sunny Sone

State employees testified that Shiyan Jiang, the plaintiff, was argumentative, dismissive and insulting to other staff.

Illustration/Sunny Sone

On Thursday, an eight-member jury sided with the state and found that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Kim Wilson, one of the agency’s directors, did not discriminate against a former employee on the basis of race, age or national origin. The decision came at the end of a four-day trial.

In April 2016, Shiyan Jiang, a hydrologist at TCEQ, was fired after having worked for the agency for 23 years. Jiang, 73, moved to the U.S. from China to pursue a master’s degree in the 1980s. Last year, he filed a civil suit in the federal district court in Austin against TCEQ and Wilson, alleging that the agency had retaliated against him for filing complaints about race and age discrimination.

In August, a judge cleared the case for trial noting that “a reasonable jury” could conclude TCEQ’s “stated reasons for terminating Jiang are untrue and that the decision to fire him was in fact motivated by race.”

But this week the all-white jury didn’t find Jiang’s case credible. They reached a decision after about four hours of deliberation. At the trial, attorneys for the state attempted to demonstrate that Jiang’s firing was a result of Jiang’s insubordinate and unprofessional behavior. TCEQ employees testified that he yelled in meetings, would reinitiate old policy debates, was “the opposite of a team player” and, at one point, slammed a door after arguing with a supervisor.

“[Jiang] struggled to accept defeat when his suggestions were rejected,” Wilson said during testimony. “There was no hope he would change his behavior.”

Wilson took over as director of the water availability division in 2015, at the end of a brutal drought that had left the state’s water resources depleted and the agency overtaxed. Unprofessional or otherwise ineffective employees, including Jiang, were among the problems Wilson had to tackle when she took over, she said.

tceq discrimination
Shiyan Jiang  Courtesy/Shiyan Jiang

Jiang was placed on probation a few months after she took the job and he was fired about a year later. While Jiang’s lawyers portrayed the timing of the firing as suspicious and motivated by bias, the state’s attorneys showed that Jiang had a documented history of disruptive behavior. Jiang’s work was rated as satisfactory or better on performance reviews during the 23 years he worked at TCEQ, but several included demerits for repeatedly arguing about settled policy issues and unprofessional conduct.

For example, Jiang in one instance took policy disagreements he had to L’Oreal Stepney, the deputy director of the office of water, who was three levels of management above Jiang. Stepney testified that he “stood up and started yelling” at her, while aggressively shaking his hands about 8 inches away from her face. “I was shocked,” she testified. “I have never experienced [that].”

After the verdict was delivered Thursday, Wilson, whose partner is Asian, was in tears and referred questions to TCEQ’s spokespeople.

Jiang’s attorney, Colin Walsh, said his client could take the case to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but said the appeal would likely not succeed. For his part, Jiang said that given “the opportunity, certainly, certainly, I would appeal.”

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Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at Grist. She previously covered environmental issues at the Texas Observer, InsideClimate News and ProPublica. At ProPublica, she was part of a team that reported on the water woes of the West, a project that was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University and was a 2017 Ida B. Wells fellow at Type Investigations. You can contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

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