Ex-Richland transportation official sues county, claims ‘racially hostile environment’

Bristow Marchant/bmarchant@thestate.com

A former Richland County transportation director who lost his job last year has sued the county over claims he was discriminated against for being white.

Michael Niermeier, who headed the county’s transportation department and oversaw the long-running penny tax roads program, alleges in the suit filed in Richland County that he was subjected to a “racially hostile environment” and consistently treated differently by Black supervisors because of his race. He alleges violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which provides for equal opportunity in employment without reference to race or color.

Niermeier was fired as Richland County’s transportation chief in June 2021 by County Administrator Leonardo Brown, The State reported at the time.

In the lawsuit, Niermeier says he had no disciplinary issues or past reports of poor performance in his job. But he said his supervisor, Assistant County Administrator John Thompson, treated him and other white employees “worse than he treated black employees in comparable positions.”

Specifically, “Thompson would regularly berate, belittle, chastise, and otherwise treat Plaintiff in an unacceptable and disrespectful manner in front of Plaintiff’s peers and subordinates,” the lawsuit alleges.

Thompson also undermined Niermeier’s authority by telling Black employees to go to Thompson instead. When one employee in the transportation department refused to follow Niermeier’s instructions and “spoke to Plaintiff in a disrespectful manner,” the suit alleges Thompson would not allow Niermeier to discipline or fire the employee because he was Black.

“Thompson prevented Plaintiff from issuing progressive discipline to any black employees,” the suit says.

The State reached out to Richland County for a response to Niermeier’s claims, but did not immediately receive a reply.

Niermeier attempted to file a complaint with the county’s human resources department, but was persuaded to let Brown address the situation instead. But the suit alleges Brown took no action against Thompson, and instead Niermeier was later fired.

Niermeier alleges he was given no prior discipline as required by county policy, and instead was ostensibly fired for lacking qualifications as a professional engineer. Niermeier argues such qualifications were not required when he was hired for the job, and that Thompson also had not been a professional engineer when he served as transportation director and was subsequently promoted.

After he was fired, Niermeier says Brown and Thompson told other employees and media outlets that his firing had been justifiable, that he “was not correctly executing the duties of his job” and “had engaged in unprofessional behavior,” both of which Niermeier denies.

Niermeier alleges he was discriminated against because of his race, and that his firing was retaliation for his complaints of mistreatment and a hostile work environment.

In 2019, Niermeier’s department took over management of the controversial penny transportation program from an outside group. By then, the program was already facing a $154 million shortfall in expected project costs from a 2012 referendum approving the penny tax to fix road issues. The state Department of Revenue also told the county it would have to pay back $32 million in money that had been misspent on everything from county-provided cars to office coffee supplies.