Split Decision for Officers Alleging Bias in Promotions

By ALISON LEIGH COWAN JULY 30, 2009 – The New York Times

Greenwich unlawfully discriminated against five of the eight African-American and Latino police officers who sued the town three years ago, a federal jury ruled this week in a closely watched case.

Those five will share damage awards totaling $157,000, assuming the town does not appeal. A lawyer for the town said that decision had not yet been made.

In a culture rife with discrimination cases brought by minority and white plaintiffs, the complaint, which was filed in 2006 and contended that “Greenwich is a racially exclusive town,” has been a sore spot.

The lawsuit, which accused the town of tolerating a work environment that was hostile to minority workers and of failing to offer them opportunities for promotion and higher pay, kept the affluent seaside town in the news and on the defensive. It followed other complaints, still unresolved, from three prominent minority women who said they had been hassled when they tried to exercise at the town’s beach.

The police officers’ case finally came to trial this month and lasted 10 days person jury deliberated for nearly four days before rendering a verdict on Wednesday.

The jury agreed with five of the eight plaintiffs that the town had failed to offer them opportunities for promotion or premium-pay assignments. The five are Terral Hardy, John Rodriguez, Scott Johnson, Carlos Franco and John Woodward. Each of them received $5,000 in addition to their damage awards to compensate them for emotional distress.

The jury also made further damage awards to Officers Franco and Woodward, finding that they faced hostile work environments.

Three plaintiffs, Robert Brown, Vincent O’Banner and Anthony Cameron, did not prevail on any ground. The jury also rejected a claim that the town had allowed the rankings from a promotional exam to expire in an effort to deny one plaintiff a promotion.

All eight officers continue to work as police officers in Greenwich and four of them have moved on to better assignments since the suit was filed.

“The case was never about money,” said Lewis Chimes, their lawyer. “They’re all still working there and the economic damages were not that high. I think the case was about vindication, and if you combine the money with the fact that after we filed, four out of the eight of them were promoted, that’s a really good outcome.”

“It was about change,” he added. “So I think our clients by and large are very satisfied.”

A lawyer for Greenwich, John Wayne Fox, said the jury’s “compromise verdict” was less harsh than it could have been.

“Now, obviously, we are not pleased in any scenario where there is a finding that there was a failure to promote because of race-related issues,” Mr. Fox said. “So we’re not happy with that. But there were other aspects where the jury found no wrongdoing. So I look at it as a case where the jury listened attentively and had sympathy for some of these individuals and felt they were treated in a manner that was unfair and gave them what I consider to be reasonable damages.”

Judge Kravitz will have to decide whether the town will also pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees, likely to exceed $900,000.

The plaintiffs seemed to score points in arguing that their supervisors tolerated offensive comments and did little when complaints landed at their feet.
In one instance in 2005, town officials were alerted that an officer had circulated a racially offensive video in an e-mail message while assigned to a federal
task force. Mr. Fox said the officer was not under the department’s command at the time.

In another instance, the eight officers argued, the town responded lackadaisically to a 1998 civilian complaint lodged against a police sergeant by a
neighbor, who claimed that the officer had referred to the neighbor’s children using a racial slur and threatened to shoot them.

The town’s insurance policies require it to pay the first $1 million of defense costs or damages, and it has already spent $690,000 on legal fees, Mr. Fox said.

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