11th Circuit rules in favor of Muscogee County School District in racial discrimination lawsuit

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 24, 2013 

The Muscogee County School District administration building is at 2960 Macon Road.

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on Tuesday ruled in favor of the Muscogee County School District in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed three years ago.

The three-judge circuit panel affirmed district court Judge Clay Land's decision Oct. 30, 2012, to grant summary judgment to the defendants, based on most of the claims being time-barred and the remainder without merit.

Fourteen former and current black plant services and custodial workers claimed in a lawsuit filed July 13, 2010, that similarly situated white employees were granted access to the state's Teachers Retirement System while they were relegated to a less generous plan.

The school district responded that the TRS is for employees with supervisory responsibilities and job titles and that none of the plaintiffs held such a position. The school district also asserted that the statute of limitations on the majority of the plaintiffs' claims had expired.

Melanie Slaton of Hatcher Stubbs Land Hollis & Rothschild LLP, who argued the school district's case Aug. 2 before the 11th Circuit, said a ruling in the plaintiffs' favor would have cost the school district "millions of dollars."

"We are very pleased that the 11th Circuit affirmed Judge Land's decision," Slaton said. "The 11th Circuit basically saw the same thing Judge Land saw. The case was time-barred. The claimants had waited too long to bring a suit and, most importantly, there wasn't any discrimination at all. The school district acted appropriately, and when there was a mistake it was corrected, and going forward it has been in total compliance with the law."

According to the 11th Circuit's ruling, Kinard Latham, who served the school district as plant services director from 1974-96, mistakenly permitted several white employees to enroll in the TRS even though they were not supervisors.

Latham's actions led to a series of school district investigations and process changes in the personnel department, the appellate court said.

"Unfortunately," the ruling continued, "Latham's actions also led to miscommunication, gossip and distrust among plant services employees."

The district court concluded that, although Latham facilitated membership in the TRS for several unqualified employees, the plaintiffs also weren't eligible based on their job titles and duties.

"After careful review of the district court's opinion and order," the appellate court said, "we find no reversible error."

The plaintiffs' attorneys, Peggy Jones Golden and Karen J. Malachi of Atlanta, weren't reached for comment. The plaintiffs listed in the case are: Carlton Brantley, Larry Dowdell, Pondiel Mabry, Connie McCoy, Hayward Parham, Reginal Richardson, Jerry Starks, Larry Thompson, William Marshall, Godfrey Biggers, Patrick Stroud, Calvin Williams, Henry Crawford and Melvin Griffin.

Although this case is finished, the argument continues. A companion case, with 11 of the same 14 plaintiffs, has been on hold before Judge Bobby Peters in Muscogee County Superior Court while waiting for the federal case to be decided, Slaton said.

The next step is for the school district to file a motion to dismiss the Superior Court case based on what the federal court has ruled, she said.

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