Thursday, August 27, 2009

EEOC Affirms Race Discrimination Decision Against Marion County Coroner's Office

Former Chief Deputy Coroner John Linehan's quest for vindication in a legal claim he brought against his former employer, the Marion County Coroner's Office, charging that former Coroner Kenneth Ackles discriminated against him because of his race and fired him in retaliation for asserting his right to equal employment opportunity, moved one step closer to being realized after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") in Washington affirmed an administrative law judge's finding in his favor almost two years ago. In November, 2007, an ALJ found in Linehan's favor and ordered the Marion County Coroner's Office to pay Linehan $360,000, plus more than $60,000 in attorney's fees. The EEOC upheld all of the award except for $36,000 in front pay awarded to Linehan.

In upholding the decision, the EEOC rejected an argument proffered by the Coroner's Office that a heightened standard should have applied because Linehan is Caucasian, and that he should have been "required to additionally establish that sufficient background circumstances exist to determine that the Coroner's Office is 'the unusual employer who discriminates against the majority.'" The Commission noted that it applies "the same standard of proof to all race discrimination claims, regardless of the [complaining party's] race or the type of evidence used." The EEOC dismissed the Coroner's Office assertion that Linehan was not replaced by an African-American because Ackles had temporarily appointed a Caucasian to the role of Chief Deputy for a very brief period before naming Alfarena Ballew, an African-American, as Linehan's permanent replacement. "[T]here is sufficient evidence in the record to create an inference that [Ackles] relieved [Linehan] of his duties and terminated him based on [Ackles'] stated preference for hiring African-American employees," the decision held, based on Ackles preferential treatment of Ballew and "[A]ckles' hearing testimony regarding his reasons for relieving [Linehan] of his duties and terminating him, which the ALJ deemed not credible."

The Marion County Coroner's Office contended that it had valid reasons for terminating Linehan; however, the EEOC concluded the reasons proffered were pretextual. The EEOC found the hearing record devoid of evidence to support Ackles' claim that Linehan failed to follow his policies and, in particular, found Ackles' claim that Linehan had negotiated on his own a contract with the forensic pathology firm, Forensic Pathology Associates of Indiana, and failed to disclose key terms of the contract to him, lacking in credibility. "We find [Ackles'] argument that he considered [Linehan's] conduct in negotiating the pathology contract provisions and allegedly performing inquests when deciding to relieve [Linehan] of his duties is simply unworthy of belief," the decision opines. Similarly, the EEOC found Ackles' contention that Linehan had targeted certain employees for disciplinary action, including Ballew, "unworthy of belief." Ackles accused Linehan of arranging a pay raise for himself behind his back, but the EEOC noted the decision to increase the pay had been made during the previous year's budget discussions before Linehan could have known he would become the chief deputy under Ackles. The EEOC said Ackles' claim that he was concerned Linehan may have committed ghost employment as a consequence of part-time work he performed that had been pre-approved by the Coroner's Office "simply defies belief."

The Coroner's Office believed it should have been accorded a presumption that it did not discriminate against Linehan because he was hired and fired within less than a year. In rejecting this argument, the EEOC noted that the ALJ had found that Ackles' testimony "contain[ed] a number of vague or contradictory statements, assertions and inferences." The EEOC rejected the Coroner's Office's contention that it had not retaliated against Linehan because Ackles didn't know he had complained about racial discrimination. It found that Linehan had discussed his racial discrimination claim with Ackles, and that other officials had spoken to Ackles about Linehan's complaint prior to the decision to fire him. Finally, the EEOC agreed that the $200,000 in compensatory fees awarded to Linehan were not unreasonable in light of the ALJ's finding that he had "suffered from being demoted and fired, and from having his name besmirched in the press, all of which resulted in months of treatment and counseling."

The EEOC's decision orders the Coroner's Office to pay Linehan his award and attorney's fees within 90 days; however, the Coroner's Office has the right to review of the decision before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals if it files a timely appeal within 60 days.

[Editor's Note: I am currently representing parties who have brought similar claims of racial discrimination against the Coroner's Office, including a former deputy coroner, a rejected job applicant and the FPAI, the forensic pathology group fired by Ackles. The claims of the former employee and the job applicant were settled by the Coroner's Office earlier this year for $100,000; FPAI's case is still pending before Judge David Hamilton in the Southern District of Indiana.]

7 comments:

IndyPaul said...

Thanks, Gary. This is the story through which I discovered your site, what, two years ago?

Advance Indiana said...

That's correct, Paul. You and Jay did an outstanding job on Linehan's behalf. It's amazing that the person who caused most of the problems in the office is still there running the place.

guy77money said...

Throw in the cities attorney fees and I would suspect the fees to the taxpayers will be over a million dollars. The amazing thing is he still has a job running the place! Only in government can you screw up so badly and don't get fired over it!

Advance Indiana said...

I've analyzed the budget impact of the coroner firing FPAI and replacing the group with several fps, including the controversial Dr. Joye Carter. The plan resulted in increasing the office's payroll by several hundred thousands dollars and the fps are still costing about the same as what FPAI's contract cost the office. Further, the office negligently failed to collect perhaps as much as a couple of hundred thousand dollars from neighboring counties for autopsies the office performed. Try getting our Republican-controlled city-county council to do some oversight. Ryan Vaughn's law firm makes a lot of money representing the coroner's office and he has blocked any oversight of the office. He even gave Ballew an appointment to a board and bragged about how great she is. And people wonder why I'm so disillusioned with my own party here locally. We need people on our council who are more interested in the public than in putting money in their own pockets.

artfuggins said...

Ryan Vaughn has so many conflicts that if he abstained from voting on issues that he or his employer had a financial interest, he would never get to vote.

Indy4U2C said...

I wish that true justice were served and Bones Ackles had to pay the entire judgment out of his own pocket. He committed the discrimination, not us taxpayers, he should pay!

swan said...

This saga is so sordid, and getting murkier and murkier. What a sad state of affairs political cronyism has brought to our county.