Philadelphia, PA -- After battling for equal rights for almost three years, four white men, all of them former purchasing managers of the School District of Philadelphia, won vindication and a $2.96 million verdict on claims of "reverse" race discrimination and retaliation in a jury verdict entered in federal court today.
The verdict -- believed to be one of the largest "reverse" discrimination awards ever in Pennsylvania -- was a resounding rejection of claims by the School District and its Chief Procurement Officer Kimberly Sangster, also a defendant, that the terminations were due to business reasons and not race discrimination.
Three of the four plaintiffs - Robert Johnston of Philadelphia, Jack Zubris of Holland, Pa., and Edward Pilosi of Bala Cynwyd -- also will be reinstated to comparable jobs at the School District, pursuant to an order entered today by Judge Harvey Bartle III of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The fourth plaintiff, Peter Bracchi, formerly of Philadelphia, has moved to Florida and was awarded front pay of $243,000, instead of reinstatement.
Each plaintiff testified as to the devastating effects to their careers and their emotions, as they were terminated in February of 2003, without notice and with a security guard stationed outside their offices. None of the plaintiffs had ever been written up for performance issues or terminated in their lives. The jury awarded each plaintiff $500,000 for "mental anguish, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and humiliation" due to the race discrimination and retaliation, and back pay in amounts varying from $71,016 to $203,107.
"Our theme throughout this case was that all employees -- regardless of whether they are black, white, yellow or brown -- are entitled to equal rights and equal protection against race discrimination at work," said Michael Homans, a shareholder in the Philadelphia office of Flaster Greenberg P.C., who represented the plaintiffs and concentrates his practice in employment law. Flaster Greenberg attorney Lizanne V. Hoerst also represented the plaintiffs at the trial.
"We were able to prove that the School District and Sangster not only discriminated against these men because they were white, in violation of state and federal laws, but that they also viciously retaliated against them after they complained about the race discrimination and tried to get their jobs back," Homans said. "Bizarrely, the District never even investigated these men's claims of race discrimination, and would not interview them for the many openings in the Procurement Department for which they applied. In addition, when another manager tried to hire Mr. Johnston, District CEO Paul Vallas's assistant called the hiring manager and yelled at him and mentioned the lawsuit. The School District then revoked the job offer."
The School District admitted that the long-serving employees -- who each had from 13 to 33 years of work experience with the District -- were not fired because of performance. Instead, the District contended their terminations were due to a cost-cutting "reorganization" of the District's Procurement Department. The plaintiffs presented evidence that the cost-cutting claim was false, as the Procurement Department's budget rose every year after the reorganization, including the addition of nearly $500,000 in May of 2003 -- three months after the terminations.
In addition, two of the School District's own managers testified they could have found productive employment for the four if Sangster had ever notified them of the pending reorganization. The School District has a $1.9 billion annual budget and hires close to 2,000 new employees each year.
The School District's Director of Labor Relations at the time, Gail Borden Krause, testified that Sangster's claim that the reorganization was done to eliminate an inefficient layer of management was a "sham," as Sangster hired four new managers within months of terminating the four plaintiffs. Sangster also hired new managers who the plaintiffs argued were less qualified -- including two African-Americans who had no experience in Procurement.
The evidence also showed that the first seven hires and/or promotions Sangster made favored African-Americans, whereas the only persons she fired in her reorganization were the four white plaintiffs. Only after plaintiffs' complaints of racial bias were shared with Sangster -- and she consulted legal counsel at the District -- did she hire additional whites into the Procurement Department.
Sangster's handwritten notes from her first meeting at the School District also showed that she had kept track of the race of many attendees of the meeting, including people she knew and School Reform Commission members. She could not explain her reasoning for this at trial, but admitted that she kept note of things that were "important" to her.
Sangster also made racial comments to Johnston, a plaintiff, including telling him there were "too many white male managers" in the Procurement Department.
Sangster also admitted that in her view of equal opportunity, having a goal of hiring people of a certain race is acceptable.
"This is a significant verdict and ruling," said Homans, who represents individuals, as well as employers. "This affirms that the state and federal laws in employment discrimination protect all races equally, and juries will protect the rights of white males as well as minorities."
Defendants were represented by Carl Singley, Richard Meyer, Michael Hanlon, and Heather Steinmiller of Blank Rome, a Philadelphia law firm.