The attacker's fist felt like a lead pipe crushing the back of her neck. Suddenly Inez Aguilar was on the ground, absorbing a flurry of punches and kicks. After passing out, the 33-year-old awoke in an ambulance en route to Rex Hospital. She had a broken rib, damaged eye socket and concussion, she recalls.
The attack occurred in 2012, when Aguilar was the property manager for Brook Hill Apartment Homes in southwest Raleigh. Aguilar didn't get a good look at her assailant, but the incident was a savage denouement of a year's worth of verbal abuse by two colleagues, she claims in a recent lawsuit. "My life has been destroyed by this company," said Aguilar, a lesbian who filed the wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuit earlier this month against General Services Corporation. A Virginia-based leasing agency, it runs several Triangle-area apartment complexes, including Brook Hill.
With last week's Supreme Court decision recognizing that gays and lesbians can legally marry, many believe the next LGBTQ rights battle will be waged in the workplace. "This is the new great frontier that we'll be fighting, starting today," said Jen Jones, spokesperson for the LGBT rights organization Equality NC.
North Carolina is one of about 30 states that don't offer employment protection for gays and transgender people, says Jones. "We now have marriage equality in America, but in the majority of states you can still be fired for putting a picture of your spouse on your desk."
In her lawsuit, Aguilar claims she was viciously taunted because of her sexuality and ethnicity by a colleague who spewed epithets like "You're like that fucking whore dyke in the office and you all need to die." Then while Aguilar was on medical leave after her attack, Brook Hill fired her for failing to make a timely bank deposit, she alleges. Unable to find another job, Aguilar left town with her wife and four children.
"It's the most egregious set of facts I've ever encountered in 25 years of practicing law," said her lawyer, James Hairston of Raleigh. "I don't think a dog should be treated like that."
Aguilar says she suffers from memory and sleep loss, eye pain and crippling anxiety. Prior to the attack she complained several times about the abuse to her supervisors, but they took no action, she says. "I never feel safe anymore," she says. "I just want to have my life back."
Although there is no statewide employment protection for gays and lesbians, 18 local governments endorse nondiscrimination policies for public workers. They range from entire counties, like Durham and Orange, and cities, including Raleigh. A 2013 poll from the NC-based Public Policy Polling found that 73 percent of North Carolinians believe employers should not be able to discriminate against gay and transgender workers, while 11 percent were undecided.
Jones calls it "ironic" that magistrate judges who refuse to participate in same-sex marriages are protected from losing their jobs "while hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ workers across the state are not." Now that marriage equality is the law of the land, she adds, more LGBTQ people will be open about their relationships in the workplace, and employment protection will become "more of a topic of conversation."
A decade ago, after a failed marriage with a man, Aguilar found happiness. She met her future wife, a Texan, online, and the couple moved in together in Cary. They found a progressive church. With the help of artificial insemination, her wife had two children, who joined Aguilar's two biological children
When Aguilar got the job as Brook Hill's property manager in 2009, she was thrilled. She began receiving laudatory reviews from tenants. "[I] was very impressed with the manager named Inez. She was courteous, helpful and took the time to listen to my concerns ... KUDOS," wrote a commenter on apartmentratings.com. Other commenters offered similar messages.
However, Michael Landsburg, the maintenance supervisor for Brook Hill, did not share such appreciation, Aguilar contends. He "made it very clear he did not like gays," said Aguilar. She accused him of making comments including:
• "All gays need to be put in the same place and die together."
• "One day you're gonna get fucked up, get ready to die."
• "You fucking lesbian dyke."
Landsburg denies Aguilar's accusations. "Basically, she went crazy," the maintenance worker said earlier this month on the grounds of Pines of Ashton—another GSC apartment complex. Moments later, his supervisor approached him and advised him not to comment.
Landsburg made several of his comments in front of GSC's regional manager, Dennis Smith, who ignored them and Aguilar's complaints, she claims. Soon, Smith was making derogatory comments himself, including, "Hispanic people are not smart," it was "disgusting to see two women together" and Aguilar and her wife were "an abomination," Aguilar recalls.
Others noted Smith's behavior. "It wasn't a hidden matter that they didn't appreciate her choice," said former resident Janette Jordan, who described Aguilar as a "sweet" worker who went "above and beyond" her work duties.
In an email to GSC's human resources director, a former Brook Hill employee accused Smith of making "sly" remarks about Aguilar's sexuality. (Smith could not be reached for comment, despite multiple messages left with GSC corporate executives.) Landsburg was eventually transferred to another property.
Aguilar began seeing a doctor for stress. In April 2012 she filed a grievance with the company's human resources director. "I have been verbally abused by employees, threatened and intimidated," she wrote in a three-page memo, adding that she no longer felt safe. The following month she filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC's Raleigh director concluded that "the evidence indicates that [Landsburg] harassed her due to gender non-conforming appearance and behavior."
A few months later, Aguilar and her family left Cary and moved into a Brook Hill apartment. Shortly after, she received a call from a man who said, "We're going to kill you and your family," she contends. "I reached out and screamed for help from corporate and from the district office, and everyone laughed," said Aguilar. "My life and concerns had no value because I was gay."
The day Aguilar complained to GSC about the threatening phone call, Aguilar prepared to make her monthly GSC bank deposit, grabbing the checks and money orders and sticking them in her car visor. That evening, as she walked across the property, she was attacked. She filed a complaint with the Raleigh Police Department, but no charges were ever filed.
Brook Hill placed Aguilar on medical leave. Six weeks later, the day she was cleared to drive, she noticed the GSC checks inside her car visor, and promptly delivered them to the bank, she says. The day before she was to report back to work, Brook Hill management called her into the office where, over the phone, GSC corporate officers allegedly fired and evicted her. The reasons, she contends, were for withholding funds and failing to drop her EEOC complaint.
"I was a happy lesbian with a wonderful future and family," she says. "How do you come back from that? How do you wake up and say, 'It will all be OK'?"
No court date has yet been set in the discrimination suit.