Fired CATS employee sues city for ‘fraudulently’ firing him after train derailment

Lawsuit claims CATS light rail GM concealed information on the derailment.
A fired Charlotte Area Transit System employee claims his boss created an abusive, hostile work environment and concealed information about the 2022 derailment
Published: May. 13, 2023 at 9:30 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A fired Charlotte Area Transit System employee claims his boss at Charlotte’s light rail system created an abusive, hostile work environment and concealed information about the May 2022 derailment. The allegations come from a new lawsuit filed by a rail operations controller who lost his job after a LYNX Blue Line train derailed last year.

The accusations in the lawsuit raise more questions about how the light rail system is being run and by who, after a previous WBTV Investigation into the General Manager of the Rail Operations Control Center identified safety problems at his previous job.

CATS fired employee Terry Creech from the ROCC for allegedly violating safety procedures after the derailment. In his lawsuit, Creech claims both safety violations cited in his termination were fabricated and fraudulent.

The lawsuit claims firing Creech was fired in retaliation “to the fact that Mr. Creech had properly reported notice of derailment per his obligations to CATS and the public.”

WBTV obtained a copy of Creech’s publicly available personnel information, but CATS did not provide documentation of the written notice given to Creech citing the reasons for his termination.

The lawsuit also alleges that the General Manager of CATS’ light rail, Deltrin Harris, was verbally abusive, created a hostile work environment and harassed and belittled employees.

WBTV previously investigated Harris and found a report from his last job that identified a “series of major ongoing issues” and claimed Harris directed rail controllers to “violate safety rules and procedures.”

The report detailed specific allegations against managers and leaders at the ROCC, including Harris.

- The ROCC Director instructed a controller to direct a train operator to operate past a red signal at a pocket track without first ensuring that the associated switches were clamped. The rule exists to prevent derailments.

- A controller described an event in which the ROCC Director ordered them to instruct a train operator to move a disabled train without verifying that all doors were closed, and no customers were on the tracks.

- In one incident, power was restored to train services at the direction of the ROCC Director while emergency personnel were still on the roadway.

Creech’s lawsuit claims he tried raising concerns about the stressful work environment and his abusive General Manager.

CATS did not respond to WBTV’s request for comment Saturday about the lawsuit.

In response to WBTV’s investigation into Harris in November, a CATS spokesperson claimed CATS Chief Operating Officer, Allen Smith, was responsible for hiring Harris. Smith has since been placed on unpaid administrative leave and no longer is a city employee.

“Mr. Harris was hired based of his extensive experience in Transit, as well as his record of safety, leadership and knowledge of rail. Mr. Harris went through a competitive hiring process that included contact with past employers for verification,” CATS spokesperson Brandon Hunter wrote in November.

Creech’s firing exacerbated another problem, a shortage of controllers in the ROCC.

In a report on the derailment submitted in February, North Carolina Department of Transportation safety officials showed concern that Creech was the only controller on shift at the time of the derailment. After learning he was fired a state official wrote “now, a very seasoned Rail Controller is no longer with the agency.”

The lawsuit highlights that as the sole controller on shift, Creech was responsible for monitoring two city rail lines, both security feeds, and multiple storage yards.

On March 31st, an email sent from NCDOT to Cagle announced the results of a surprise inspection after an anonymous complaint was filed with the department about the continued practice of having only one controller working in the ROCC.

“Despite prior assurances received and CATS’ ongoing actions to address NCDOT’s required ROCC staffing related Corrective Action Plans, NCDOT has verified that scheduling a single ROCC qualified employee to oversee and manage all ROCC job duties, on various work shifts, is routinely planned,” the NCDOT wrote in its letter.

NCDOT found that the third shift in particular has an excessive amount of specific job duties and “further distracts ROCC employees from the critical responsibilities of overseeing and managing rail vehicle and streetcar movements.”

NCDOT has now mandated the ROCC be staffed with at least two controllers at all times. If CATS is ever unable to comply, the transit agency would have to shutdown either the Blue Line or Gold Line until a second controller arrives.

In April, Cagle told councilmembers it could take at least six months to hire and train new controllers to alleviate the staffing problem. However, Cagle says CATS will be able to staff at least two controllers in the ROCC until new employees can contribute.

Creech’s lawsuit calls for damages totaling more than $10,000 and punitive damages leveled against the City of Charlotte.