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Cost of ending state discrimination suit exceeds $200 million

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A racial discrimination lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Transportation is drawing to an end after more than 21 years of legal battles that cost the state more than $200 million and created dramatic advances for black employees.

The litigation has gone on so long that six different governors have been involved with it, and the original plaintiff, Johnny Reynolds, died two years ago without seeing a resolution.

“I never realized it would last this long. I had several heart attacks worrying about this,” Reynolds told The Associated Press in 2001.

Reynolds sued the Department of Transportation in May 1985, when Gov. George C. Wallace was serving his last term. His suit contended discrimination in the highway agency’s hiring and promotion of blacks. Eventually, some white employees joined in, saying they were also discriminated against because they weren’t promoted during the drawn-out litigation.

The focal point of the case — a consent decree reached between the state and the plaintiffs in 1994, when Jim Folsom Jr. was serving as governor — was finally completed last year by Gov. Bob Riley’s administration after years of delays, and it was allowed to expire on Dec. 31.

For state officials, it was reason to celebrate the new year.

“It means we can function just like any other state department. We can hire with the normal hiring procedures,” Assistant Transportation Director Dan Morris said.

“It represents a good day for Alabama taxpayers,” said Attorney General Troy King, who was in high school when the case began.

The expiration of the consent decree — which spelled out hiring and promotion goals for the agency to achieve — doesn’t mean the case is completely over.

“There are a lot of issues left,” including what to do with millions in fines paid by the state, said Robert Wiggins, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

Each side blames the others for the delays, but regardless of who’s right, court records describe the impact of the case.

In 1994, when the consent decree was reached, 24 percent of the department’s employees were black, but many minority employees were in lower-paying jobs classified as “service maintenance.” Few blacks were in high-paying jobs, with 9 percent of the professionals being black and 10 percent of the technicians.

By 2003, the staff was 35 percent black, and many of the black employees were in higher-paying job.

That included 31 percent of the department’s professionals and 25 percent of its technicians.

The 35 percent black staff has remained consistent since 2003, and it is much higher statistically than the overall labor market and higher than Alabama’s 26 percent black population.

State officials say the state has paid out $206 million, so far, on litigation costs and that will climb some as the case winds down. The expenses include paying the legal bills for both sides, hiring consultants and experts, paying contempt fines, and compensating people who suffered damages.

They estimated another $100 million in “soft costs,” including paying state employees who focused on implementing new hiring and promotion practices and the extra cost of contracting out state engineering work that would have been in-house except for a long hiring freeze that resulted from the case.

To put it in perspective, the governor says the cost is more than enough to pave all 1,000 miles of interstate highways in Alabama and then give Interstate 20 a second layer.

“Now, we will be able to direct the money we have been paying in legal bills and fines back into making our highways better and safer,” Riley said Thursday.

Ending long-running lawsuits is nothing new to the Riley administration. In 2003, his administration wrapped up work on a 33-year-old suit over conditions in state mental hospitals. And working with Alabama’s universities, it helped end a 25-year-old college desegregation suit last month.

When Riley entered office in 2003, the state was paying $63,000 per week in court fines. In his first State of the State speech, Riley said ending the long-running case was a top priority.

Working with the attorney general and state Personnel Department, state Transportation Director Joe McInnes hired a different team of lawyers to work on each aspect of the case. With the tag team approach, they quickly whittled down the unresolved issues, got the fines stopped, and rebuilt the staff with new hiring and promotions procedures.

The Transportation Department, which shrunk to 3,500 employees in 1997 when the hiring freeze was in effect, now has 4,500.

The attorney general says there are two lessons to be learned from the case:

  • The state should have moved quickly to institute race-neutral testing for jobs and promotions.
  • “Federal judges don’t make good department heads.”
  • Now that the case is winding down, transportation officials say they have one more goal: making sure it never happens again.

    “The top management here is committed to a fair hiring and promotion practice,” Morris said.

    Breakdown of expenses

    Costs paid by the Alabama Department of Transportation in a discrimination case through Sept. 30, 2006:

    $20.0 million — defendant’s attorney fees

    $ 8.7 million — intervenors’ attorney fees

    $27.0 million — plaintiffs’ attorney fees

    $71.5 million — defendant’s consultant and expert fees

    $ 0.8 million — plaintiffs’ consultant and expert fees

    $ 1.3 million — general expenses

    $54.4 million — payments to blacks

    $ 8.4 million — payments to whites

    $13.9 million — contempt fines

    Alabama Department of Transportation

    Issues in case

  • U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson must decide what to do with $13.9 million in contempt fines paid by the Department of Transportation for not complying with the consent decree fast enough. The state has already received a refund of $4 million in fines.
  • The claims of 900 present and former employees who contend they were passed over for promotions must still be reviewed on an individual basis to see if they should be paid.
  • The judge must decide what to do about thousands of people who say they weren’t hired by the department or didn’t apply for jobs because they knew they wouldn’t be hired.
  • The Associated Press

    Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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