By RYAN J. FOLEY Associated Press
The Clinton Herald
---- — 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.
The trial that started Tuesday at the Polk County Courthouse in Des Moines involves 53-year-old Dorothea Polk. Polk started working in 2003 as a temporary clerk in Mallory’s office and applied for a full-time clerk position two years later and was deemed highly qualified. But Mallory later sent a letter saying she would not be considered for the job because she failed to properly submit her resume. Polk claims she was shocked because she had hand-delivered her application to Mallory’s secretary.
When Polk confronted Mallory about what happened and asked questions about the hiring process, she claims that Mallory responded, “You people think you get special privilege.” Polk claims that she later learned a white male from a staffing agency was hired to fill the position on a temporary basis.
Polk filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Months later, she was fired after a review found she did not meet performance expectations and “disrespectfully challenges authority.”
State lawyers have argued that Polk did not fill out the application correctly for the full-time job, and the position was closed without anyone being hired. But Judge Brad McCall last week rejected their request to dismiss her failure-to-hire claim, saying jurors should decide.
In another ruling last week, McCall said that he would allow testimony from University of Washington psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Cheryl Kaiser, who are experts in a concept known as implicit racial bias.
Some scholarly studies have found an inherent preference for whites over blacks in about 70 percent of Americans, including many who don’t consider themselves racist. Greenwald testified in the class-action lawsuit that a similar percentage of Iowa managers likely had preferences for whites and that could be a cause of hiring discrimination in Iowa, which is 91 percent white.
Judge Robert Blink dismissed the case last year after ruling that the plaintiffs failed to show any particular practice was discriminatory. He said the data showed wide discrepancies in the hiring of blacks at different agencies, with some appearing to disadvantage them but others favoring them.
The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments last month during which Newkirk asked justices to reinstate the lawsuit, which is seeking tens of millions of dollars in lost wages and court-ordered changes to hiring practices to track and eliminate disparities. A decision is expected in the coming months.