Family of black teen ordered to back of a city bus files federal suit against bus driver

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Marcia Nelesen
Tuesday, January 14, 2014

MADISON—The family of a black Janesville teen ordered to the back of a city bus filed suit Tuesday against the bus driver in U.S. District Court in Madison.

The suit names the bus driver, Mary Lesko, “in her individual capacity.”

The family's attorney had earlier asked the city for $500,000, but the city is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The suit claims Lesko deprived the youth, identified as D.T., of his 14th Amendment rights either on the basis of race or sex or race plus sex.

The lawsuit identifies D.T. as African-American. The suit names his mother, Shytivia Turner-Muhammad, 843 E. Milwaukee St., as bringing the suit. Lesko lives at 1334 Sharon St.

A video of the Nov. 7 incident was released by city administration in December. By then, the bus driver was using paid time off until her retirement date of Jan. 1.

The video shows the bus driver telling a young black male to move to the back of the bus to make room for a passenger who was apparently elderly or disabled.

As the youth moved to the back of the bus, he mumbled something under his breath, and the bus driver ejected him.

Amy Scarr, the family's attorney, said in December she was surprised the city went public with the video. She said she had been in negotiations with the city and its insurance company, but they had not responded to an opening demand of $500,000 in damages.

Scarr alleges in the suit there was no reason for her client to move to the back of the bus because there was available seating in the disabled area. Bus policy requires able-bodied people to move from the disabled area only if the section is filled and someone needs a seat, Scarr said in the suit. She said there was room available in the disabled area and other able-bodied people were seated in the disabled area, as well.

The bus policy reads that a bus driver can ask an individual to move if an elderly or handicapped person needs a seat. Signs on the bus designate the area as priority seating and that people should comply with requests if asked to move.

According to the suit, Lesko acted “arbitrarily, irrationally and with discriminatory intent when she told D.T. to move from his seat in the priority seating area to the back of the bus.”

As a result of being singled out for harsh treatment, “D.T. suffered deprivation of his equal protection rights, interference with his right to use public transportation, emotional distress, loss of dignity and loss of enjoyment of life.”

Scarr said the family would ask for compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be proved at trial.

The Gazette was not able to reach Scarr, Lesko or Mark Freitag, Janesville city manager, for comment late Tuesday afternoon.

The city earlier denied the “characterization placed by the student's parents upon the actions, statements and motivations of the Janesville bus driver involved.”

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