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Laid-Off Worker Taking on JPL With Bias Suit

March 25, 1993|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE — Greg Richard is a driven man.

He sleeps on the floor of his apartment in Los Angeles, lives out of boxes, and has sold almost everything except his fax machine, which whirs with steady missives to members of Congress, other federal officials and anyone else who may be willing to listen to his long tale of woe.

Two years ago, the 33-year-old mechanical engineer was laid off from his job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory because of what JPL called budget constraints.

Since that time, Richard estimates, he has spent hundreds of hours and up to $8,000 fighting JPL, a U.S. government facility with a budget of more than $1 billion operated by Caltech under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Richard's aim: to prove that JPL racially discriminated against him by laying him off in March, 1991. The engineer, who is African-American, filed a $200-million lawsuit last year in Los Angeles federal court, alleging that his layoff was a wrongful termination that violated affirmative action laws.

Last month, Richard's case suffered a setback when U.S. District Judge Lourdes G. Baird, agreeing to a motion by JPL for summary judgment, dismissed four of the five counts, including all the discrimination charges.

The last count, for breach of contract, will be heard Monday and Richard is pinning all his hopes for vindication on that decision. But he realizes that Monday's hearing could also spell his last hurrah. And that thought tortures him.

"They've stripped me of my manhood; my dignity," Richard said angrily. "Emotionally, I've missed out on two years of my life that I can never get back. Everyone else has families, homes, and I have nothing. All because I took a stand against discrimination."

George Alexander, a JPL spokesman, said the lab has no comment on the lawsuit.

"We believe we have a very fair and equitable program for all employees," he added. "With 6,500 employees, there may inevitably be a disgruntled employee. But we await our day in court."

JPL defends its hiring history of minorities. Alexander said JPL has an active recruitment program for all minorities and makes regular visits to job fairs, historically black colleges and other universities with large numbers of minorities.

Between 1980 and 1992, Alexander said, the number of minorities employed as technical professionals, such as engineers and scientists, grew from 330 of 2,000 employees to almost 750 of about 3,000 employees. In that same time period, in professional and administrative categories, minorities climbed from 90 of 600 employees to 160 of 670, Alexander said.

Nonetheless, JPL has faced various discrimination lawsuits from former employees in recent years. In 1991, four technical workers filed a $20-million federal lawsuit against JPL alleging harassment and racial discrimination. The matter has been set for trial later this year. A sexual harassment suit is also pending. JPL recently settled out of court on another discrimination suit filed by a technical manager.

Ironically, JPL in 1991 received an Exemplary Volunteer Efforts Award from the federal government for its innovative efforts to increase the employment opportunities for minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, disabled veterans and Vietnam veterans.

In Richard's case--regardless of whether one considers him a victim of discrimination or a disgruntled ex-employee--his story illustrates the difficulties of taking on a large bureaucracy with ties to the federal government.

After months of waiting, Richard's frustration increased in January when he learned that the judge assigned to his case, U.S. District Court Magistrate Elgin Edwards, had taken himself off the case because he had worked for Caltech-JPL from 1988 to 1991 as a patent attorney.

Edwards took the action before making any judicial rulings on Richard's case. But the angry engineer saw this as one more sign that powerful forces were allied against him.

Richard admits that the two-year legal battle has become an obsession. He spends hours each week digging up new documentation that he hopes will support his arguments. He can quote chapter and verse from federal equal employment guidelines.

His one-bedroom apartment in the Crenshaw District is stacked with five-foot piles of documents. He forcefully and frequently voices his belief about a conspiracy among various federal agencies to protect JPL.

For Richard, this battle has become very personal. His layoff took him from a $37,960-a-year job to the unemployment line. Although he has traveled as far as Texas for 22 job interviews since that time, Richard says nothing has panned out. Now, with his savings running out, the engineer says he is almost homeless and may be forced to move in with his parents.

Richard's lawsuit alleges that JPL's affirmative action program was inadequate and that the firm did too little to hire and promote African-Americans and Latinos, who traditionally have been underrepresented in science and engineering.

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