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Monday, December 31, 2007

Ex-Firefighter Awarded $1.17M In Forced Retirement

Black Ex-Firefighter Claims Retirement Was After Complaining About Harassment, Hazing
LOS ANGELES (CBS) ― A black former Pasadena firefighter was wrongfully forced into disability retirement after complaining about harassment and hazing by colleagues, a jury found Friday in awarding him $1.17 million.

A racially mixed Los Angeles Superior Court panel of eight women and four men, including a black female, deliberated for less than half a day before finding in favor of Carter Stephens.

A noticeably moved Stephens nodded and smiled at jurors as he heard the verdict. He later shook hands with each of them as they left the courtroom.

Stephens sued in November 2006 for wrongful termination and discrimination. According to the lawsuit, supervisors and co-workers harassed Stephens by leaving blood, urine, and feces on his bedding, putting mucous on his uniform and scrawling a swastika on his firefighter hood.

In 2001, Stephens worked at a station where he overheard another captain refer to him by the "N" word, according to his suit.

Stephens had joined the department in 1987 and the Pasadena Fire and Police Retirement Board approved his disability retirement against his wishes in February 2005, according to his court papers.

"I'm extremely happy," Stephens said later outside the courtroom. "A million bucks, I can start putting my life back together, I can go back to school."

Stephens testified during the trial that he has worked low-paying jobs since being retired, including a stint as a shoe salesman at Macy's.

Brent S. Buchsbaum, one of Stephens' lawyers, said that although Stephens was the victim of racial discrimination, the focus of his suit was on the retaliation he believed he suffered after complaining about the pranks and other actions against him.

Assistant City Attorney Hugh A. Halford said he was disappointed with the verdict and that it would be appealed. He declined further comment, but said during final arguments Thursday that the 55-year-old Stephens was out for cash, not justice.

In 2000 and 2001, Stephens underwent therapy for stress he experienced on the job because of the alleged harassment, the lawsuit stated.

Stephens injured his knee in June 2002, but his doctor told him the following year he was fit to return to work, according to the lawsuit.

However, a city doctor in April 2004 declared Stephens "unfit for duty at this time" and the city prepared a disability retirement application for him, according to the lawsuit.

According to Buchsbaum, the finding was not supported by any facts and was used by the city as justification for retiring Stephens.

Juror Louis Ceballos, a 57-year-old nightclub disc jockey from Glendale, said he initially decided to vote in favor of Stephens. He said he then reconsidered for a while because none of Stephens' bedding or clothing was brought into the courtroom, nor were there any photographs.

However, Ceballos said he eventually returned to his original position in favor of Stephens, in large part because of he believed the city's human resources director, Karyn Ezell, did not properly investigate his complaints.

"She should have taken him under her wing and found out what was going on," Ceballos said.

Ceballos said the jury was not swayed by and never talked about ne~s accounts of hazing and retaliation against other firefighters, including that of Tennie Pierce. Pierce claimed his Los Angeles Fire Department colleagues at the Westchester station fed him dog food.
Pierce sued the city of Los Angeles and later settled for $1.43 million. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed an earlier $2.7 million accord after seeing photographs of Pierce participating in hazing incidents himself.

Ceballos said that unlike Pierce, Stephens did not pull pranks on other firefighters.

(© 2007 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Secret Service racism suit gets another day in court

Secret Service racism suit gets another day in court
Atlanta plaintiffs, others say promotions based on race, not merit

By REBECCA CARR
Cox News Service
Published on: 12/06/07

A long-running federal lawsuit that alleges systemic discrimination against African-Americans in the U.S. Secret Service — including the Atlanta field office — could take a new turn on Monday.

The class-action suit with sworn statements from 58 African-American agents from across the country alleging that "a racially hostile environment" exists at the agency has languished for seven years.

Secret Service agents watch from the top of a Centers for Disease Control building during a 2001 visit from President George W. Bush.

The government has been sanctioned twice for failing to produce evidence in a timely fashion and refusing to produce evidence as required under civil procedure rules, records show.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson has ordered the government to produce evidence more than 20 times — a number that far exceeds typical cases, legal experts say.

On Monday Robinson will hear arguments about whether to sanction the government yet again, this time for stating in sworn declarations that the service does not archive "unofficial" interpersonal e-mails when, in fact, it does archive them, according to court documents.

The delays have frustrated the plaintiffs, who allege that white agents routinely leapfrog over black agents despite higher scores on promotional exams, and black agents are sent undercover because it is assumed they talk the "street" language and where a white "good ol' boy network" prevails.

Cheryl L. Tyler, a former agent, said the Atlanta office was known as the "chocolate office" during the 1980s because 8 out of 75 agents were black.

Tyler shared an office with a white agent who called his child "dumb n-----" in her presence, according to her statement.

And white agents in the office openly talked about attending an annual whites-only "Good Ol' Boy Round Up" where law enforcement agents watched mock lynchings of blacks while eating their barbecue, Tyler said. In 1996, government investigators found that federal law enforcement agents from several agencies, including the service, attended the event, but none directly engaged in bad conduct.

The Secret Service has effectively blocked the 7-year-old case from moving forward by failing to release documents, testimony and communications, according to lawyers representing the plaintiffs, who seek to force the service to change its promotion system so that agents are promoted based on merit, not race and who they know.

Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the service, declined to respond to the plaintiff's allegations. He rejected the notion that the government has delayed the case by failing to respond to basic discovery motions.

"We have and will continue to approach all litigation in good faith," Zahren said. "We have always maintained that the only proper forum for resolution of legal and procedural disagreements between sides is in court."

300,000 documents turned over

Over the past seven years, the service has provided more than 300,000 documents in response to numerous motions filed by attorneys for the plaintiffs, Zahern said. In those documents, the government has tried, unsuccessfully, to get the case dismissed because "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact regarding plaintiff's claims concerning discriminatory testing, hiring, discipline and undercover assignments. " Court documents say revealing too much information would thwart the mission of the Secret Service, undermining national security.

Melissa Henke, part of a team at the Hogan & Hartson law firm representing the agents for free, said the service is attempting to keep basic information from being revealed in court.

The service is "hiding behind unsubstantiated allegations that engaging in the civil discovery process will somehow undermine the Secret Service mission," Henke said.

What does undermine the mission, Henke said, is allowing an "environment of unfairness to pervade the agency."

In some cases, this has resulted in unqualified people being promoted above the more qualified African-American agents, she said. In other cases, some of the most qualified African-American agents have been driven out of the Secret Service due to racism and the lack of advancement.

Overt racism is not as apparent today as it was when the lawsuit was filed in 2000, said Yvette Summerour, an African-American supervisor in the Atlanta field office and a plaintiff in the case.

But it took Summerour 16 years to get promoted to her current rank of GS-14, one level behind the highest level of civil service. That is about twice as long as it takes a typical white agent, black agents say. Other agents interviewed dispute that figure.

Despite finally getting what she wanted — a promotion and a job back in Atlanta where her whole family lives — Summerour continues to fight.

When she gets low and wants to just quit, Summerour thinks back to her time as an agent assigned to cover Chelsea Clinton.

On a trip with Chelsea and Hillary Clinton to Senegal, they visited the island known as the Door of No Return, a place where captured Africans were physically separated from their families and sent to America to become slaves. Summerour's emotions took over. She cried on the job — a taboo in the upright world of the service. Back at the hotel, Hillary Clinton sought her out and asked how she was doing.

Summerour told her she just needed to put what happened behind her.

Clinton, Summerour said, turned toward her. "Don't you ever forget because if you forget, it can happen again."

And that is why, Summerour says, she won't give up the legal fight. She is home. She finally has her promotion. But she looks at the young African-Americans coming up the ranks and doesn't want it to happen to them.

"Make no mistake, if it takes another 8 years, if it takes until after I retire, I will see this through," she said.

30 years of discrimination?

In sworn statements filed with the court, black agents allege more than three decades of discriminatory practices. They say that while they now number about 10 percent of the service's estimated 2,500 agents, a "white man's network" keeps them from reaching the upper rungs of management. When the lawsuit was first filed in 2000 by veteran civil rights lawyer John Relman, the number of blacks in the top tier was said to be 4.2 percent. The service disputes those figures in legal documents.
The service declined to confirm those figures or to say how many blacks it has on its force today and how many of them are in senior management positions.

So far, the alleged discrimination has failed to undermine the mission of Secret Service Agent Reginald G. Moore, an Atlanta native who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Moore finds himself leading the service's African-American agents who want to end discrimination that he believes kept him from being promoted at least 140 times. In most cases the agent promoted was white, had less experience and a lower score on the promotions exam, he said.

But on a June day in 1999, Moore walked into the White House Joint Operation Center with the confident air of a man about to be promoted. Moore had recently completed his fifth high-risk mission overseas guarding then-President Clinton, long-considered a must to advance to the next level.

He had the acting supervisor title, complete with office, car and the keys to the entire White House complex. He had scored 97.03 out of 100 on the service's promotion exam. His evaluation glowed, stating that he "completes each and every assignment with the tact, diplomacy and professionalism consistent with the highest traditions of the Secret Service."

Everyone said the job would be his. Except it wasn't. As Moore entered the center that warm day, an agent looked up from his desk. The promotions list had been posted. "Sorry, just heard," he said. A white agent, who had scored about the same on the exam — 97.27 out of 100 — got the job even though he never served on the presidential detail.

Moore was ordered to train the new supervisor and report to work in Dallas, a move that require uprooting his pregnant wife and daughter. It was a turning point for Moore, an agent who had worked his way up through the service's ranks after graduating from the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.

He hired Relman and filed a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination against the some 200 black agents in the service in 2000. Seven years later, Moore is still fighting, despite winning a promotion to the highest level of the service, a GS-15.
Moore stays because he wants to ensure that the hiring and promotion policies are permanently changed to make it fair for black and minority agents in the future.
"I want to be sure that the good ol' boy network doesn't stop a black agent in the future," Moore said.