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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

USDA to review racism complaints

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday vowed to improve civil rights at the U.S. Agriculture Department, which has been hit by more than 14,000 complaints about racial discrimination since 2000.

The USDA, which has a long history of civil rights complaints from some farmers denied access to USDA benefits, has yet to review about 3,000 of them, said Vilsack, who acknowledged "questions continue to be raised about USDA's handling of complaints.

"There have been unresolved claims. There have been a backlog of claims. I want to close the book on all of those claims," Vilsack told the North American Agricultural Journalists.

"I want to make sure that we do everything we possibly can in the future not to have this magnitude of problems we've had for the last 20 years. It's time to get it past us," he said.

Vilsack said he will be creating a task force to review civil rights complaints lodged since 2000.

The department also is suspending all foreclosures within USDA's Farm Service Agency's farm loan program for 90 days to help financially strapped farmers and to review loans for possible discrimination.

A landmark multimillion-dollar settlement was reached in 1999 after black farmers said USDA unfairly denied their applications for USDA loan and benefit programs and failed to investigate complaints of bias. USDA so far has paid out about $1 billion to compensate black farmers.

(Reporting by Christopher Doering and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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CBC upset over Obama’s stance on black farmers

By Kevin Bogardus, Posted: 04/23/09

Black lawmakers are roiled over the Obama administration’s move to potentially cap billions of dollars in compensation owed to black farmers, saying the position contradicts legislation the president championed as an Illinois senator.

In a meeting Wednesday, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) vented frustration at recent court filings by the Justice Department that could severely limit compensation owed to black farmers discriminated against in the past by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Justice Department has estimated that it could cost as much as $4 billion to repay the farmers, yet the recent filings suggest it may cap the total compensation at $100 million — about 2.5 percent.

The black lawmakers decided to request a meeting between administration officials and caucus representatives as soon as possible to discuss the filings.

“At a minimum, the CBC should meet with the Obama administration and clarify this filing,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

“What will happen — should happen — is the Justice Department, the [Agriculture] Department should sit down with representatives of the CBC,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).

At stake are billions of dollars in compensation owed to black farmers whose applications for loans and credit were denied by USDA officials. Those discriminated against won a historic agreement with the federal government in 1999, known as the Pigford settlement, wherein authorities agreed to compensate black farmers for USDA’s past prejudices.

But thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline to apply for compensation. Since then, black lawmakers have sought to reopen the lawsuit and allow those farmers who missed the deadline to re-file claims for compensation.

They triumphed last year when they added a $100 million fund to the Farm Bill that would begin to pay back late filers to the Pigford settlement. On Capitol Hill, Obama and others, including Thompson and Davis, fought for the fund to be included in the legislation, which was key in securing CBC support for the Farm Bill.

Lawmakers intended the fund to be a down payment on compensation for black farmers and planned to add more money to the fund when needed. Estimates have 65,000 black farmers planning to file late claims for compensation under Pigford, which would result in at least $50,000 in payments and $12,500 in tax breaks for each filer. A February filing by the Justice Department estimates about $4 billion would be needed to pay back all the farmers.

“It is not a cap in the real sense,” Davis said. “It was intended as a starting point.”

“At no point was that $100 million intended to be a cap,” Thompson said. “It was a beginning.”

But in recent court filings, the Justice Department has said it cannot disburse more than $100 million to farmers who were discriminated against.

Until Congress eliminates the funding cap, the administration cannot pay out any more, argued Justice lawyers. The fact that the Pigford language in the Farm Bill allows Congress to authorize more money if necessary does not change Justice’s analysis.

That could leave black farmers who were discriminated against with much less compensation than expected, about $1,500 in payments. CBC members believe Obama should stick to his bill, which he introduced as standalone legislation in August 2007 before adding it to the Farm Bill in the Senate.

“He should remain consistent with his legislation,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “With the background of this president and his legal knowledge, I’m sure they will take another look at this.”

Supporters of Obama’s presidential campaign argued the then-Illinois senator’s move to resolve late Pigford claims would endear him to Southern black voters during the tough Democratic primary race against former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). At the time of the bill’s introduction in 2007, Obama was finding his footing as a candidate and polls suggested he was struggling to attract black voters. He later won almost unanimously among this group against Clinton and then in the general election against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Now Obama may have to face off with several of his own campaign supporters over how best to compensate discrimination claims by black farmers. Clay, Davis and Thompson endorsed Obama during the presidential primaries.

“The president has been a leader on this issue since his days as a U.S. senator and is deeply committed to closing this painful chapter in our history,” said Kenneth Baer, communications director for the Office of Management and Budget, in a statement.

In addition, John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), is hosting a rally on the National Mall next Tuesday to protest the Justice Department’s court filings.

“We were hoping this measure was going to be a priority for this administration,” Boyd said. “He made those commitments on the campaign trail. We hope the president would take a look at this and help us find a solution to this problem.”

On the NBFA’s website, Boyd is pictured shaking hands with Obama. Having briefed the then-senator about the issue as early as 2005, the trade association president lobbied him to introduce the bill and was rumored to be a potential Agriculture secretary for the administration.

But now he is on Capitol Hill this week lobbying Congress, “trying to shake loose some funds from lawmakers to help the black farmers,” Boyd said.

The NBFA could expect to find backing from black lawmakers, some of whom planned to request more funds to compensate the discrimination claims during the appropriations process this summer.

“It is something that needs to be done. We should have the support of some members,” Davis said.

The Obama administration has begun to reach out to black lawmakers to soothe concerns over the court filings.

“We have been in touch with the administration and they are trying to right the ship as soon as possible,” said an aide to a key CBC member.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made correcting the civil-rights wrongs by USDA a priority. In a memo sent to USDA employees Tuesday, Vilsack said the department would work with Justice to resolve late Pigford claims “fairly and expeditiously.”

“We agree more needs to be done not only on this particular issue but on civil rights in general. We are working internally at USDA as well as with the Department of Justice to ensure that people are treated fairly,” Vilsack said in a statement.

Firefighters' civil rights case could reshape hiring policies

The Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in the case, in which 20 white firefighters allege racial discrimination in New Haven, Conn.

By David G. Savage, April 6, 2009

Reporting from Washington -- Frank Ricci -- a firefighter in New Haven, Conn. -- spent months listening to study tapes as he drove to work and in the evenings, preparing for a promotional test. It was a once-a-decade chance to move up to a command rank in the fire department.

Ricci earned a top score but no promotion.

The city had coded the test takers by race, and of the top 15 scorers, 14 were white and one was Latino. Since there were only 15 vacancies, it looked as though no blacks would be promoted.

After a racially charged debate that stretched over four hearings, the city's civil service board rejected the test scores five years ago and promoted no one.

"To have the city throw it out because you're white or because you're not African American is insulting," Ricci said when he and 19 other firefighters sued the city for racial discrimination.

Their case, scheduled to be argued this month, is the first to come before the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. that broadly raises the issue of race in the workplace. The outcome could reshape hiring and promotion policies for millions of the nation's public employees -- and possibly for private employers as well.

Roberts, leading a five-justice majority, has made clear that he believes it is time to forbid the use of race as a factor in the government's decisions.

The Obama administration, taking its first stand on race and civil rights, sided with the city officials and said they were justified in dropping the test if it had "gross exclusionary effects on minorities." While blacks make up about 31% of New Haven's 221 firefighters, 15% are officers -- eight of the department's 42 lieutenants and one of its 18 captains.

At issue in the New Haven case is whether an employer can weigh the racial effect of a hiring or promotional standard.

Lawyers for the firefighters say the city violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it threw out the test scores. They say the law forbids employers from "discriminating against one group of individuals to benefit another group on account of race." The white firefighters "ask nothing more than the basic right to be judged by who they are and what they have accomplished, not by the color of their skin," the lawyers say.

But the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said the claim ignored the history of discrimination that excluded blacks from fire and police departments. In many cities, including New Haven, the "fire department was the preserve of white males," said John Payton, who is also counsel for the defense fund. "African Americans were virtually excluded." That's why cities across the country have fought discrimination lawsuits involving their fire departments, he said.

Many of the cases have stretched over decades. In the 1970s, civil rights lawyers sued many cities because minorities were excluded for city jobs. In response, cities often signed consent decrees promising to hire and promote more blacks. However, in the decades since, cities have fought long-running lawsuits from whites who say they were victims of reverse discrimination.

Last month, Chicago paid a $6-million settlement to 75 white firefighters who said they lost promotions when test scores were scrapped in 1986.

"This was very similar to what is before the court in the Connecticut case," said Linda Friedman, a Chicago lawyer for the firefighters there. "The city of Chicago saw itself in a predicament. They thought they could be sued by blacks if they used the exam. And they were sued [by whites] when they decided against using the exam scores."

These cases highlight a conflict in federal civil rights law.

The Constitution and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 say employers may not discriminate against people because of their race. However, employers also have been told they may not use hiring or promotional standards -- including tests -- that have a "disparate impact" on minorities.

The court adopted this rule in a 1971 case. Congress added it to federal law in 1991. The new provision said employers may not use a job standard that has a "disparate impact on the basis of race" unless it is "required by business necessity." For example, it is not certain that the knowledge tested by the firefighter's exam was required to be a lieutenant in the fire department.

In New Haven, the city's lawyers cited this "disparate impact" rule as their reason for scrapping the test scores in 2004.

"I understand their disappointment," Victor Bolden, the city's corporation counsel, said in an interview, referring to the white firefighters. "But this test had an adverse impact [on minorities]. The city did the right thing. It made a measured response in a difficult circumstance. Someone was going to be disappointed, and we could be sued either way."

Payton emphasized that New Haven had not rejected the white firefighters because of their race, but rather rejected the use of the written exam as the sole determinant of who would be promoted.

"New Haven ought to be able to go back to the drawing board," he said, to devise a fairer promotion system.

New Haven is a racially mixed city of 124,000. About 44% of its residents are white, 37% black and 21% Latino.

The Obama administration told the court that New Haven officials were justified in scrapping the test results if they had "a reasonable belief" they could be sued by blacks for discrimination.

Lawyers for the white firefighters insist that "racial politics" and "cronyism" were behind the city's decision. They said Boise Kimber, an outspoken black minister, was a key political ally of Mayor John DeStefano Jr., and that he pressured the city civil service board into rejecting the test results.

"You have a responsibility of making this fire department look like New Haven," Kimber told the board in one heated session. "And it ain't looking like New Haven."

Citing the "voluminous record in this case," the Obama administration said the court should send the case back to a judge in Connecticut to consider whether the white firefighters were victims of racial politics.

Yale law professor Drew Days, a former chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said he was surprised the justices agreed to hear the case of Ricci vs. DeStefano. Now that they have, he added, a ruling for Ricci "could have very far-reaching consequences because it may well apply to all employers."

david.savage@latimes.com

Five fired black workers sue PharMerica

African immigrants charge they were mistreated and harassed by bosses and co-workers.

By TREVOR MAXWELL, Staff Writer

April 24, 2009

PORTLAND — Five men have filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against PharMerica, one of the nation's largest pharmacy services corporations.

Four of the plaintiffs are originally from Somalia, and the other is from Ethiopia. According to the suit filed Wednesday at U.S. District Court, the men were hired in early 2007 as pharmacy technicians at PharMerica's facility in Portland.

The men claim that over the next six months, they suffered persistent harassment and discrimination by white co-workers and supervisors, creating a segregated workplace where their rights were routinely ignored.

After reporting their concerns about the alleged hostile environment, the men claim to have been subjected to retaliation by PharMerica managers. The plaintiffs say that on July 30, 2007, they were all fired.

"The big picture is they felt completely like they were marked as second-class citizens. It was degrading, dehumanizing, and it really scarred them," said the lawyer for the plaintiffs, David Webbert, who specializes in workplace discrimination cases.

Abdifatah Haji, Said Ali, Abdurazak Isaac, Muse Keyse and Nuur Mohamed seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages based on PharMerica's alleged violations of the federal Civil Rights Act, the Maine Human Rights Act and the Maine Whistleblowers' Protection Act.

The plaintiffs also seek an order from a federal judge that would require PharMerica to provide training and other steps to reduce the likelihood of discrimination and retaliation within the company.

"We really need to stamp this out," Webbert said.

Two of the plaintiffs have moved out of the state, but the three others still live in the Portland area. Webbert said all of them have legal residence in the U.S.

Calls to PharMerica's corporate headquarters in Louisville, Ky., were not returned Thursday. John Gleason, a Portland lawyer listed on court documents as the company's local attorney, also could not be reached for comment. The company has until May 4 to file a formal response to the complaint at U.S. District Court in Portland.

CLAIMS OF UNFAIR TREATMENT

According to the company's Web site, PharMerica operates more than 120 institutional pharmacies nationwide. Those pharmacies coordinate, package and distribute medications to long-term care facilities.

Haji, Ali, Isaac, Keyse and Mohamed were hired in early 2007 at PharMerica's facility on McAlister Farm Road. The company was then known as Kindred Pharmacy Services, prior to a merger and name change.

As pharmacy technicians, the men were responsible for filling prescriptions before they were sent out to nursing homes. In the complaint, Webbert said no other black people were working as pharmacy technicians there at the time the plaintiffs were hired.

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs' direct supervisor allowed other technicians to rotate shifts, but restricted the black workers to the closing shift. That shift was supposed to end at 7:30 p.m., but often ran until 10 p.m. because all of the prescriptions had to be filled.

The supervisor allegedly told the plaintiffs they were not allowed breaks after 4:30 p.m., which the plaintiffs later learned was a violation of labor laws. The men said the supervisor told them, "This isn't a mosque," and would not allow them to pray during breaks.

The supervisor and other employees allegedly insulted the plaintiffs and repeatedly used slurs.

"They were called (the n-word), lazy, black sheep, barbarians, filthy, irresponsible, dumb, dirty, little boys and stupid," Webbert wrote in the complaint.

Two white female co-workers, Webbert wrote, told the supervisor they did not want to work closing shift because "they were afraid the plaintiffs would 'jump' them and 'rape' them in the parking lot."

Two other white female co-workers felt the men were being harassed,...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Minnesota Pays Settlement to Black Officers in Bias Suit

The officers alleged a history of racial discrimination that only got worse.

By DAVID CHANEN, Star Tribune

Minnesota bridges rated: An interactive map of bridges that are "structurally deficient," "functionally obsolete" or have gusset plates like those on the I-35W bridge.

The city of Minneapolis agreed Friday to pay five high-ranking black officers $740,000 to settle a lawsuit they filed in 2007, alleging racial discrimination and a hostile working environment.

Lt. Don Harris, Lt. Medaria Arradondo and Sgt. Charlie Adams each will receive $187,000, Lt. Lee Edwards $137,000, and Sgt. Dennis Hamilton $40,000.

The settlement, which includes the plaintiffs' legal fees, does not mandate that the city change any policies or practices.

"The amount of the settlement is extremely significant in race discrimination [cases] in the state, especially against a public entity," John Klassen and Andrew Muller, attorneys for the plaintiffs, said in a joint statement. "The Police Department hasn't [ever] paid this amount in an employment discrimination case, to our knowledge."

The five officers sued the city and police Chief Tim Dolan in December 2007, alleging a history of discrimination in the department and asserting that it became more institutionalized after Dolan became chief. The five had an average length of service of 20 years.

The suit focused on three personnel moves by Dolan: the reassignment of Harris and Edwards to lower positions, and the transfer of Adams from the homicide unit. The city already has paid Adams an $85,000 settlement over comments Dolan made after the transfer.

Last summer, the Minneapolis City Council rejected a $2 million settlement offer. Friday, the council voted 12-1 to approve the $740,000 settlement. Lisa Goodman voted no. A trial had been set for March 2010.

Dolan deferred comment Friday to a city spokesman. When the 38-page suit was filed in December 2007, Dolan issued a statement saying he was committed to building and retaining a diverse police force reflecting the city's population.

Three months earlier, several black officers had met with the director of the city's Civil Rights Department to voice concerns about racial issues, but the director dismissed the allegations and later publicly called the officers "disgruntled cops near the end of their careers," the suit said.

The department had only one officer of color with a rank higher than lieutenant when the suit was filed, but Dolan has since promoted two more. About 18 percent in the department are officers of color.

The suit claimed that black officers received fewer opportunities for training, special duty and overtime, as well as fewer appointments to key units. It also claimed that the department had failed in several areas of diversity required by a mediation agreement reached with the help of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The suit alleged that the department refused to pay overtime to Arradondo, head of the Fourth Precinct's community response team, for the key role he played in critical incidents. Harris, a Fourth Precinct investigator, was passed over for appointments in favor of white officers, the suit said.

Potential 'catalyst for change'

While several white homicide officers got more than 150 hours overtime during the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, no one informed Adams of that opportunity until the last days of the detail, the suit said. The department fired Hamilton for infractions that didn't get white officers fired, the suit said.

The department demoted Edwards, former head of the homicide unit and an inspector, after accusing him of driving a department vehicle intoxicated and making offensive comments to subordinates. But the suit said the department then replaced Edwards temporarily with a white lieutenant with a lengthy history of civil rights violations.

Edwards, cleared recently of criminal wrongdoing in a federal corruption investigation, was suspended without pay for related departmental violations. The department's Internal Affairs Unit found that he violated codes of conduct and ethics in dealing with a high-ranking member of the Gangster Disciples gang. He faced six internal affairs allegations; four were sustained in a report completed last summer.

"Litigation, especially litigation with current employees, can be hard on everyone," said Assistant City Attorney James Moore. "We want to ... move forward on the important business of the Minneapolis Police Department. We also look forward to having plaintiffs work with us to accomplish our goals."

Zach Metoyer, former co-chair of the Police Community Relations Council, said he was happy for the officers. But he added that he wished the court would have ordered the department to change how it treats officers of color.

Citing the same perceived shortcoming, Al Flowers, who had been on the Community Relations Council, said "he was flat-out disappointed" with the settlement.

But attorney Muller said it could have long-term impact.

"No one would wish to go through what these five officers went through," said Muller. "The suit could be a catalyst for change. Time will tell what the department's commitment is to those issues."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465