Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Dismissal Of Race Discrimination Lawsuit Against Marion County Coroner's Office Reversed

A three judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a dismissal of the race discrimination lawsuit brought against former Marion County Coroner Kenneth Ackles by Drs. Stephen Radentz and Michele Catellier, and their business, Forensic Pathology Associates of Indiana, LLC, in the federal district court for Southern Indiana. The plaintiffs contended the motivation for the termination of their 5-year contract by Ackles only months after it was executed was the desire to replace the white physicians with one of the nation's few African-American forensic pathologists, Dr. Joye Carter, and to hire only the doctors' black employees as employees of the coroner's office, which is exactly what transpired after the termination of their contract. The Coroner's Office insisted the decision to terminate the contract was purely economical. In a unanimous opinion authored by Judge Ilana Rovner, joined by Judges Posner and Easterbrook, the Court held in reversing Judge William Lawrence's order granting summary judgment to the defendants:

The plaintiffs-appellants Stephen Radentz, Michele Catellier, and Forensic Pathology Associates of Indiana, brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the defendants violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The suit was brought against Marion County, as well as against Kenneth Ackles individually and in his official capacity as Marion County Coroner, and Alfarena Ballew, individually and in her official capacity as Chief Deputy Coroner. The suit alleged that the defendants’ decision to terminate the plaintiffs’ contract of employment was based on race discrimination, and specifically was part of a broader effort to replace white workers with African-American workers. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment against Radentz and Catellier, and the plaintiffs now appeal that determination . . .
Taken as a whole, we cannot conclude that a jury would have been compelled to believe the defendants' explanation. The plaintiffs have produced evidence casting doubt as to whether the decision was truly based on the allegedly exorbitant costs of the out-of-county autopsies. The ability to end those autopsies upon six months' notice under provision K of the contract, without terminating the contract itself, is a significant factor, particularly given the defendants' claims that they were pleased with the quality of the plaintiffs' work and wanted to retain them. The other evidence cited above further indicates that race, rather than cost concerns, were the true reason for the decision. The issue before us is whether summary judgment was proper. There is a factual dispute as to whether the decision to terminate the contract was based on a nondiscriminatory reason or whether it was race-based. Therefore, the decision of the district court is REVERSED and the case REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Prior to the termination of the forensic pathologists' contract, Ackles had fired his chief deputy and long-time employee of the office, John Linehan, who also filed a race discrimination complaint against the office. An EEOC administrative law judge found in Linehan's favor, a decision which was affirmed on appeal to the EEOC in Washington and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Rovner's opinion noted discussions Ackles had with Linehan while he was still employed as his chief deputy "concerning ways to hire more African-Americans and to replace white workers in the Coroner's Office." "In January, 2005, Ackles expressed to Linehan his desire to hire an African-American pathologist, and specifically mentioned Dr. Carter," Rovner noted. She further observed the "racial makeup" of the office "changed significantly during Ackles' tenure." "As a whole, the office went from 16.67% African-Americans to 36% . . . a figure that includes a large number of part-time employees." "The racial change was even more dramatic when considering full-time employees . . . the number of African-American employees changed from 8 full-time white employees to 6, and the number of African-American employees transitioned from 2 full-time employees to 7, or 54% of the full-time workforce." The failure of any cost-savings to materialize after FPAI's contract was terminated and Dr. Carter was hired was compelling evidence to Rovner. In fact, the new contractual arrangement dramatically increased the costs to the Coroner's Office to provide the same services. As Rovner put it:

The district court again dismissed the evidence of the lack of financial savings based on the caution that we should not second-guess the defendants’legitimate business decisions. That is an important proviso, but the financials are nevertheless relevant to the question as to whether the cost of the contract was the true reason for its termination. The lack of monetary savings—or even of an attempt to achieve monetary savings with Dr. Carter’s contract—is relevant to the determination as to whether the need for cost savings was the driving force in the decision to terminate the contract.

By way of disclosure, I am co-counsel in this case for the plaintiffs, along with Jeffrey McQuary.

UPDATE: The Star has updated its website with an online story by Jon Murray. He notes the Coroner's Office recently reached a settlement agreement with John Linehan for $249,000 after the 7th Circuit affirmed his race discrimination claim but ruled the original $350,000 award approved by the EEOC was excessive. Murray writes:

City attorneys did not immediately return a message seeking comment this morning.


"We're obviously very pleased with the result," said Jeffrey McQuary, an Indianapolis attorney who represents Radentz and Catellier with co-counsel Gary Welsh. "We're looking forward to taking this to trial and vindicating Steve and Michele as excellent physicians and providers of a valuable city service at a reasonable cost."

Other white former employees also have alleged Ackles' employment decisions were based on race, with three of them receiving payouts totaling $350,000 from the county.

Last year, a 7th Circuit panel upheld findings of racial discrimination in the case of John Linehan, a former chief deputy coroner fired by Ackles in 2005. But the court reduced damages awarded for emotional distress by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The city recently settled the case and agreed to pay him $249,000, including attorneys fees, Linehan said today.

7 comments:

Paul K. Ogden said...

Gary congratulations. A job well done. I get so frustrated with our local federal court weighing facts in summary judgment when they're not supposed to do that. It sounds like the 7th Circuit agreed. Congratulations, agian.

Indy4u2c said...

I am pleased to learn a settlement was reached, but very unhappy that the taxPAYERS have to be held responsible for the actions of a racist fool!

I only wish that "Bones" Ackles were held personally accountable for his OWN behavior. After all, it wasn't the taxPAYERS who were racist, just "Bones" Ackles...on his own.

Now for proper remedy, Joye Carter should be fired post haste and replaced with the properly credentialed pathologists.

Advance Indiana said...

Thanks, Paul. Indy4u2c, These issues have been brought to the attention of our Republican-controlled administration and our Republican mayor and the only thing they've been interested in doing is telling the people running the office what a great job they're doing and how much more can we increase your budget. The budget has grown more than most agencies as a percentage since the days when McGoff last ran the office.

Advance Indiana said...

Thanks, Paul. Indy4u2c, These issues have been brought to the attention of our Republican-controlled council and our Republican mayor and the only thing they've been interested in doing is telling the people running the office what a great job they're doing and how much more can we increase your budget. The budget has grown more than most agencies as a percentage since the days when McGoff last ran the office. The only thing the council did was, at the direction of Ryan Vaughn, withhold Ackles' pay for nearly a year because he couldn't pass the coroner's exam, an act that was clearly unconstitutional and that resulted in the county having to pay Ackles double the salary he would have otherwise received, along with paying his attorney's fees.

Indy4u2c said...

Touche...

"Corruption is as corruption does."

IndyPaul said...

Congratulations, Gary. Good news.

Advance Indiana said...

Thanks, Paul.