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A novel challenge to Iowa's hiring practices -- now a rejection

April 17, 2012|By Michael Muskal

Iowa’s state government employment practices do not discriminate against African Americans, a judge ruled Tuesday, rejecting an "uncommon approach" to this area of the law.

In a 56-page decision, District Judge Robert Blink ruled against the plaintiffs in what is believed to be one of the largest class-action suits of its kind, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of applicants and job-holders within the state’s executive branch going back to 2003.

The plaintiffs were African Americans who sought employment with or promotion within the state of Iowa merit-based employment system. As part of the class action, they sought tens of millions of dollars in lost wages and to force changes in state hiring policies.

“The court concludes that plaintiffs have failed to prove by a preponderance of evidence that subjective, discretionary decision-making ... caused disparate impact or adverse impact discrimination with respect to hiring and promotion decisions,” Blink wrote.

The case, which was tried from Sept. 12 to Oct. 4, can be appealed.
 
The case is important on the state level, and officials said they saw the ruling as a vindication of their employment policies. The state argued that the case could bring into question every employment decision made at 37 state agencies, involving 20,000 jobs and 500,000 applications.

“We appreciate Judge Blink’s hard work on this very difficult case,” state Atty. Gen. Tom Miller said in an e-mailed statement. “This thoughtful decision is based on the law and on the facts of the case.”

But the case took on added significance because it was based on a novel legal theory that used a statistical approach to back its assertion that African Americans were discriminated against.

Often in such civil rights cases, plaintiffs contend that the discrimination is deliberate and is done because of animus to specific protected class such as race. But in the Iowa case, the plaintiffs claimed that the state allowed an “implicit” bias in employment decisions that led to systemic discrimination.

Using their statistical approach, plaintiffs argued “that the natural unintended consequences of failure to follow rules designed to ensure equal opportunity in the workplace resulted in unfair treatment because of their race,” Blink wrote. “In their own words, they describe this as an ‘uncommon approach’ to the law.”

“Plaintiffs’ claim is unique,” Blink wrote. “The alleged employer is the executive branch of a state government. The alleged discriminatory practice is systemic rather than particularized. And the claim is based on omission rather than commission. There is no legal precedent for a claim pleaded in exactly this way.”

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Michael.muskal@latimes.com


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