Orleans DA halts fight over racial discrimination suit, agrees to settle _lowres

Advocate staff photo by A.J. SISCO -- Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro delivers his annual speech on the state of the criminal justice system at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and two of his top aides agreed Tuesday to settle a federal lawsuit against them alleging racial discrimination and a hostile work environment.

The sealed settlement, the details of which were not disclosed, came toward the end of the second day of a trial in which a former assistant district attorney, Josie Numa, accused Cannizzaro and his first assistant, Graymond Martin, of failing to take seriously her complaints against supervisor Cherie Huffman. All three were named as defendants in the suit.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle announced the settlement to the jury after booting a pair of news reporters from the courtroom without explanation.

Numa, 39, worked as an attorney in the office from February 2007 until she received a letter in March 2012 announcing she’d been laid off. In between, she claims a pattern of harassment and retaliation emerged — not just against her but also against other nonwhite attorneys working under Huffman, who headed the Child Support Enforcement Division.

A black woman from Haiti, Numa alleged she was first attacked by a co-worker for her accent. Then, Huffman picked on her and other nonwhite attorneys exclusively, allowing support staff to review their work but not that of white attorneys and “demoting, reprimanding and firing black attorneys, while allowing white attorneys to transfer out of Child Support Enforcement or to resign, rather than be subjected to termination,” according to her complaint.

Numa said she asked to transfer out of the section but that Huffman insisted she stay.

Numa filed at least three complaint letters in 2010 and early 2011, but an internal investigation, directed by Martin, came up empty.

In an April 6, 2011, letter to Numa, Martin wrote that he commissioned a special counsel to conduct a “thorough and comprehensive investigation” and that he discussed the allegations at length with Cannizzaro.

Martin said he found “some evidence of a personality conflict between you and a particular employee of this office,” but no racial discrimination or retaliation.

The lawsuit was first filed in March 2013 and named Cannizzaro, Martin, Huffman and the city as defendants.

Lemelle dropped the city from the lawsuit and dismissed some civil rights allegations against all of the parties for their actions prior to Numa’s termination, court records show.

Among the other black lawyers in the office who Numa claimed also were targets of racial discrimination was Yolanda King. King won a Juvenile Court judgeship last year and now is under state indictment for allegedly lying about where she lived when she qualified for office.

King arrived at federal court Tuesday with her attorney as a question lingered as to whether she would testify in the case. She did not.

Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, refused to comment as he left the courtroom Tuesday, as did Martin.

Neither Numa nor her attorney, Nghana Lewis Gauff, would comment, citing the sealed agreement.

Through a law clerk, Lemelle declined to explain his decision to order the removal of two reporters — one for The New Orleans Advocate and the other for nola.com — from the courtroom as the parties stood to announce a settlement. The jury was not present when Lemelle issued that order.

The reporters re-entered the courtroom as Lemelle addressed the jurors before releasing them. But a bailiff ordered them out again after Bowman and Martin rose to complain.

It was unclear whether the judge was aware of the second removal of the reporters as he addressed the jury. A request to the bailiff to bring the matter to the judge’s attention went unmet.

“The public and the press generally have a First Amendment right to view all proceedings conducted in open court,” Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino said. “Only when the court finds compelling reasons for closing the courtroom and states those reasons on the record is this presumptive right of access denied.”

Mary Ellen Roy, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues, agreed, saying that judges may close courtrooms to the public when juries are present under only “a very limited set of circumstances,” such as when trade secrets are being discussed.

From the bench, Lemelle did not state a reason for kicking out the reporters.

Any dollar figure attached to Tuesday’s settlement is likely to become public once the office pays it out.

Cannizzaro, who is white and will soon enter his second term, isn’t the only New Orleans district attorney to face accusations of racial discrimination.

However, the accusations against his office were not nearly as sweeping as those made in a case against Eddie Jordan, his predecessor. Jordan, who is black, resigned from office in 2007, shortly after a federal appeals court upheld a massive judgment from a federal civil rights suit over his firing of dozens of white employees shortly after he took office in 2003.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.