IOWA CITY — Jury selection started Tuesday in the first of what could be several trials over claims that managers in Iowa’s executive branch discriminated or retaliated against black state workers and job applicants.
The cases stem from a class-action lawsuit in which up to 6,000 blacks passed over for state jobs alleged a pattern of discrimination in state government hiring practices, based on statistics and research suggesting Americans subconsciously prefer whites to blacks. A judge dismissed the case last year and the Iowa Supreme Court is considering whether to reinstate it on appeal.
Four individual class members will have their claims tried in the coming weeks under a deal between their lawyers and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the state. About three dozen other claims could also go to trial if a broad settlement isn’t reached.
The first four cases involve workers who were fired from jobs at Iowa Workforce Development between 1999 and 2006. The plaintiffs’ lawyers, Thomas Newkirk and Leonard Bates, will argue that a culture of discrimination and retaliation existed under the agency’s then-human resources director, Jackie Mallory.
Their trial brief notes that former Department of Administrative Services director Mollie Anderson testified in a deposition that Mallory was fired in 2006 after a review by then-Gov. Tom Vilsack’s administration uncovered concerns of racism and other problems under Mallory’s management. Mallory has called racism allegations against her “absolutely ridiculous,” and other state officials have said that Mallory was fired for other reasons.
Still, Mallory will be a leading figure in the cases, with plaintiffs’ lawyers arguing that she routinely manipulated the state’s merit system rules in ways that opened up jobs for whites, limited opportunities for blacks and punished those who filed complaints. Mallory did not respond to a phone message Tuesday seeking comment.