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Hearings Set on Handling of Bias Cases

Law: Congresswoman, assemblywoman question power of judges in workplace discrimination suits. They criticize jurist who overturned large awards.

November 26, 1996|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Criticizing the record of a Superior Court judge, state and federal legislators Monday announced hearings on whether laws against workplace discrimination are being properly enforced in Los Angeles courtrooms.

The informational hearings will be sponsored by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), the newly elected chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica).

At a news conference, Kuehl said the hearings could be used to consider restricting the power of state judges to overturn verdicts reached by juries.

Waters said the hearings will begin in about 60 days and focus on two recent cases in which Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Malcolm H. Mackey tossed out multimillion-dollar jury awards to employees who alleged workplace bigotry and racial harassment.

The defendant corporations were Pitney Bowes and Hughes Aircraft Co.

The cases, Waters said, "leave no doubt that we still have a serious and continuing problem with discrimination in the corporate workplace."

The legislators sharply criticized Mackey, who voided the verdict against Pitney Bowes and another jury's $89-million verdict against Hughes. Mackey declined to comment Monday. Both cases are being appealed.

In his legal opinion overturning the Pitney Bowes verdict, Mackey said that while there was evidence of unfortunate incidents in the workplace, discrimination had not been proved. He said the amount of the verdict shocked his conscience.

Waters cited language that Mackey used in tossing out the Pitney Bowes verdict, saying she found it particularly offensive.

She quoted his written opinion: "Our ancestors came across the plains in covered wagons; they were tough. Minorities need to be tough in the workplace--they can't react to every comment."

She added, "I'm sorry the judge doesn't think we're tough enough. His ancestors may have come across the plains in wagons. Mine came across the sea in chains. How tough do we need to be?"

She said Mackey also referred to the jury in the Hughes case as "this minority jury." The Hughes appeal is scheduled for argument Dec. 7.

Kuehl, a former law professor who taught employment discrimination law, said that when a judge overrules a jury in a discrimination case, it erodes confidence in the justice system.

"Some employers and, apparently, some judges are actually undermining the whole area of discrimination law," Kuehl said. "These judges and these companies not only don't get it. They apparently don't care that they don't get it."

Mackey, Kuehl said, is "the same judge who, responding in 1980 to a paternity charge against him by a Filipino woman, told a reporter, 'Were this woman white, this situation never would have come up because this woman is . . . irrational.' "

The legislators also cited a Los Angeles jury's $20-million verdict against Texaco in a sex discrimination case, a decision that was overruled by Superior Court Judge Ronald E. Cappai four years ago. Texaco recently made headlines when it settled a racial discrimination case for $176 million. In that case, high-ranking corporate executives referred to African American employees as black "jellybeans."

Waters said representatives of the three corporations would be invited to the hearings.

Officials at Pitney Bowes, based in Stamford, Conn., could not be reached for comment Monday. But previously they have pointed out that the plaintiff, Akintunde Ogunleye, sat on several minority committees and that the company has won awards for its diversity programs.

Ogunleye, a Nigerian national and a top salesman, appeared Monday with Waters and Kuehl. He contended he was subjected to taunts of "ooga booga" and other forms of racial harassment at Pitney Bowes' U.S. Mailing Systems regional office in Van Nuys. He was awarded $11.1 million in September after a racially mixed jury found 11 to 1 in his favor following a two-week trial.

Ogunleye told reporters he is appealing "to try and help people who are not in a position to talk about their daily anguish" from a discriminatory work climate.

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