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Deal Nears on Suit Accusing INS of Job Bias

Settlement: Eight hundred former and present black employees would be paid $4 million. They alleged unfair denial of promotions.

September 25, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what would be one of the largest bias settlements against the federal government, the Justice Department is nearing final agreement on a deal to pay more than $4 million in back wages to about 800 current and past employees of the Immigration and Naturalization Service who say they were denied promotions because they are black.

The proposed settlement--which also would require so-called remedial promotions for 26 African American INS staffers nationwide--is to be filed before U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan in Washington.

"We have a preliminary settlement and we're hoping it will be finalized and signed within the next few days," said Greg Gagne, an INS spokesman in Washington.

Officials of the INS and its parent body, the Justice Department, declined to discuss the contents of the proposed settlement. But a copy of the pact was obtained by The Times.

The federal government would agree to hand over $4.1 million in back pay, $1.5 million in legal fees and provide 26 promotions for affected employees, according to a copy of the proposed settlement. In addition, the INS would hire an independent consultant to monitor the hiring and promotion of African Americans in the INS for three years.

Under the proposed settlement, either side will be able to go back to court and seek judicial intervention if there is evidence that the agreement is being violated.

"The settlement is completed," said David L. Ross, whose national law practice represented the about 800 INS employees affected by discrimination. He confirmed details of the proposal.

As part of the accord, the Justice Department admits no wrongdoing--a standard provision in such settlements, attorneys said.

In addition, most affected employees will retain limited rights to seek so-called compensatory damages for suffering emotional stress, pain and anguish brought on by the discrimination.

The pact signals the close of a bitter case that arose more than five years ago when 19 Los Angeles-based INS investigators filed an internal complaint alleging that they were denied promotions because of racial bias.

The settlement is expected to be the latest resolution of a series of discrimination cases against federal agencies that include the FBI, the State Department and the CIA. In these cases and others, lawyers for the plaintiffs say, white male supervisors maintained a glass ceiling that prevented the advancement of blacks, women and Latinos.

"There has been a good old boys' network that meant you got promoted based on who you knew," said David J. Shaffer, a Washington-based lawyer who has represented FBI agents and others alleging employment discrimination. "That's changing, but it takes a while to change when you've got a generation of white male supervisors making decisions on who gets promoted."

After the initial complaint in Los Angeles, the INS case was later certified as a national class action suit for all African American members of the agency's "officer corps," an employee group that includes Border Patrol agents, examiners, and deportation and detention workers.

"I feel relieved, but I can hardly say I'm happy about what happened," said Norris Potter III, a Los Angeles-based INS criminal investigator who was the lead plaintiff. "This case has humbled me. But I feel I'm a more compassionate person now."

Potter, 42, an 11-year employee of the INS, said he decided to challenge INS hiring practices when he suspected that he was being denied promotions because he was black. Potter contended that his formal complaint triggered extensive retaliation, including a five-day suspension, as well as anonymous letters and telephone calls to his wife.

"You deserve better than that mentally deranged liar," read an anonymous missive addressed to his wife. "He is a danger to the Immigration Service and to his family!"

As part of the settlement, Potter will receive a $90,000 cash settlement, a promotion to a supervisory job and a transfer to Seattle.

"I want to put this behind me and get on with my life," Potter said.

The atmosphere among workers in the Los Angeles INS office was described as dangerous in a 1993 agency task force report on the charges.

"The present work environment is sufficiently hostile and volatile that physical injury to managers and special agents is possible," said the report, written by Michael J. Creppy, a former INS associate general counsel and now the nation's chief immigration judge. "There are large numbers of employees who seem completely alienated from management. While this included nearly all of the African Americans with whom we spoke, it also included Hispanics and a number of white employees."

The 1993 report found that the INS's nearly 2,000 African American employees nationwide--representing about 11% of the agency's total work force--were underrepresented in management ranks. Blacks were almost invisible at the highest echelons.

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