The Livingston Parish School Board will be forced to pay out on an employment discrimination lawsuit after a federal appeals court recently ruled in favor of a former employee who claimed she was passed over for a new job because of her race.
The school system was found liable by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the cost of damages has not been determined. The plaintiff’s attorney said he sent the School Board an offer to settle the case in September, but the board voted to take no action following last Thursday’s executive session.
The lawsuit centers on the job of warehouse manager. When the position was created in June 2006, a number of candidates applied, including Sandra Pace, a white woman, and Ron Colar, a black man, according to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge.
After the School Board awarded Colar the job Sept. 7, 2006, Pace filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and later sued the School Board and former Superintendent Randy Pope, citing racial and gender discrimination, though the court dismissed the accusation of gender discrimination.
Pace, a school system purchasing agent, claimed the new job “would have meant substantial salary increase,” though specific salary information from 2006 was not immediately available following Thursday’s meeting.
“During the days immediately preceding the meeting of the LPSB, Mr. Randy Pope made telephone calls to various members of the LPSB and he indicated that he had been contacted by influential members of the black community who had requested that an African-American be given the warehouse manager position,” Pace’s complaint claims.
Shortly before the position was filled, Pope contacted board members on the sub-committee in charge of hiring a new warehouse manager and “expressed interest in the outcome of the vote indicating that he would like to hire an African-American to the position,” according to a memorandum filed on Pace’s behalf.
When the matter went to the School Board, Pope only recommended Colar for hiring approval.
In court documents, the defendants framed the story differently. They pointed to statements given by former board members David Tate and Julius Prokop III in depositions.
“... (Pope said) that he had either met with or had talked with the (Black Voters League), some of their members, and they had been pressuring him to put some blacks in some administrative positions in the system, and that he felt like if Ronald Colar was appointed to this position, that would help satisfy their desires for blacks to be moved up,” Tate said.
Prokop said he and the former superintendent discussed race in the hiring but that Pope “did not sway or try to sway my vote in any particular way.”
The two sides of the case also clashed over whether Pace met the requirements of the job. At the time the manager position was created, she had worked for the school system 22 years, 16 of which were as a purchasing agent, an administrative job. The school board said Colar had about 15 years of experience as a “warehouseman.” Pace and the school board disagreed whether her past work met the required five years of warehouse experience required for the job.
A district court jury ruled in Pace’s favor, finding the school liable for racial discrimination and saying she was treated “less favorably” because she is white. However, the defense convinced U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson to dismiss the case in July 2013 on the grounds that Pace did not present sufficient evidence to support the jury’s decision.
She challenged Jackson’s ruling with the 5th Circuit, where a three-judge panel in August reversed the lower court’s decision, saying that the jury decision should stand. Yet while the school system has been found liable, the matter of damages is still pending.
In her initial complaint, Pace requested $400,000, plus punitive damages, interest, attorney fees and other costs. A jury would typically make a determination about damages.
But Max Jordan, Pace’s attorney, said his client hopes to settle with the School Board.
Jordan said he has made an offer to the board, but declined to discuss specifics. Current Superintendent John Watson declined to discuss the matter, as the case is still open, and attorney Carey Jones, who represented the board on the matter, did not return a call for comment.
Pace retired as a purchasing agent about two months ago, Watson said. Her salary upon retirement was $51,781 per year. Colar continues to work as warehouse manager with a $44,097 annual salary.
The warehouse manager is paid more than an equally experienced purchasing agent, though years of service also affect pay.
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