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Racial discrimination suit revived against county

A federal appeals court said five St. Louis County employees can pursue their racial discrimination lawsuit against the county.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Friday the federal trial court was wrong to grant the county’s motion for summary judgment. The case now goes back to U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton, of the St. Louis-based federal court, for trial.

“We’re disappointed it wasn’t affirmed, but we’ll be ready for trial,” said Patricia Redington, county counselor.

The plaintiffs are all black women who work in the county assessor’s office – Carolyn Betton, Cytoys Durham, Colette Howard, Jurlean Johnson and Charlene King. The women allege the county retaliated against them for complaining about race discrimination when it reassigned them to other, less desirable jobs in June 2004.

When the plaintiffs were reassigned, the director of revenue told them it was temporary, to help other departments catch up on work, and that all Department of Revenue employees would be cross-trained. But the county did not rebut the plaintiffs’ testimony that only a few employees were reassigned for cross-training and to end backlogs, the court said.

The 8th Circuit noted that none of the plaintiffs had been reassigned before they complained about discrimination, even though the county’s workload regularly varied between departments, as the county argued. Also, even though the county had reassigned a number of people since 2003, most held higher-level positions than the plaintiffs and were reassigned well before the plaintiffs were, the court said.

The plaintiffs’ reassignments or transfers lasted a lot longer than those of other employees in their department, and four of the plaintiffs were required to move to new work stations. Only two of the other six employees reassigned to other departments were required to move their work stations, the court noted.

The county said the plaintiffs were reassigned because the abstract section of the office was seven months behind inputting data, but the court noted only two of the plaintiffs were assigned data entry work. These factors, plus the timing of the reassignments, create a jury question of whether the reassignments were retaliatory, the court said.

The discrimination the employees initially complained to the assessor about boils down to the allegation that white employees were allowed to do things black employees were not, such as talk on the phone, talk to each other and use computers for personal reasons. White employees were not observed as closely as black employees and were not reprimanded for sleeping at work, the plaintiffs alleged.

The women were not represented by counsel on appeal. Eric Tolen, their original lawyer, was convicted in September of numerous charges of statutory sodomy of a minor under 14 and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

The plaintiffs were unable to discuss their lawsuit while they were at work.