A case in which a city sues itself Job bias claim involves 17 years of back pay

September 23, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

It's an unusual case of Baltimore City suing itself. And even though the city will win the case -- one way or another -- it could cost hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars when the the 17-year-old dispute is finally resolved.

Baltimore's Community Relations Commission is suing the city Department of Housing for allegedly failing to comply with an order to rehire and give back pay to temporary housing inspector Denver Johnson, who was denied a full-time position with the agency in March 1980. The commission found that Johnson was discriminated against when a woman was promoted in his place.

"Gentlemen, this is rather interesting," said Judge Thomas E. Noel, listening to arguments in the case yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court. "I've been here a long time, and there are not a lot of things that make me pause but I've never seen anything like this before."

The Community Relations Commission is asking the court to enforce the order it gave in 1993, after it spent 13 years investigating Johnson's case. But time has complicated a case that should have been settled years ago.

On one hand, the housing department wants the judge to dismiss the case because officials believe it would be difficult now to prove that Johnson deserves to be rehired.

"Witnesses who were alive in 1980 may not be alive in 1997," Michael G. Raimondi, a lawyer for the housing department, told the judge during the hearing. "Memories of 1980 are not going to be fresh in 1997."

The commission argues that its orders should be followed, regardless of the impact. The commission filed suit in October 1995 to enforce its directive.

In this case, the order could be expensive. Housing inspectors' salaries range from $20,982 a year for an entry-level position to $31,722 a year for the highest-grade inspector. Seventeen years of back pay could cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"The city knew about this case," said Norris C. Ramsey, an attorney for the commission, arguing that the city should pay in full. "The city fully participated in every aspect of this matter."

The commission upheld Johnson's race and sex discrimination complaint filed after he was denied the full-time housing inspector post. In his complaint, Johnson alleged that the department had given one of two full-time positions to a woman who was not qualified to hold the post, according to court records. He told the commission that he met all the qualifications and yet was denied the job.

Johnson was among 12 applicants seeking the two positions, according to the court records. Seven of the 12 were listed for permanent consideration, but Johnson was not included.

In March 1980, the department picked two people from the list of seven for the permanent positions -- Robert Mergehan and Shirley Christopher.

In May 1980, Johnson was dismissed from the housing department, though he had received satisfactory job performance evaluations, had never taken sick leave and had completed the required six months of employment before seeking the higher position, according to the court records.

The commission reviewed the case and affirmed Johnson's allegations. "Some of the seven applicants that were ranked and considered for permanent employment were not qualified for permanent employment under Bulletin No. 6 at the time the selections were made, and they did not have the qualifications possessed by Mr. Johnson," the order stated.

The commission ordered the housing department to rehire Johnson and pay him back wages. But the commission did not make its ruling until 13 years after the complaint was filed, and the housing department refused to comply with the order.

The commission took the housing department to court. And as it did while it was before the commission, the case is languishing in the courts. Postponements and inconclusive rulings have brought it before Noel, who said yesterday that he is concerned about awarding 17 years of back pay to someone when the city agency seeking the order took 13 years to reach its decision.

Noel said there is no question that Johnson deserves some remedy as the commission ruled, but that such an old case could cause a serious financial blow to the city.

"The obvious question I have is, 'What happened between 1980 and 1993?' " Noel asked the lawyers yesterday. "I don't know what you do when you have a city agency that takes 13 years to make a decision."

Noel declined to rule on the case yesterday. He gave lawyers for both sides the opportunity to look at such issues as whether a limit exists on the amount of time the commission can spend deciding a case, and whether a jury trial could be held to determine whether the housing department did discriminate against Johnson.

Noel has scheduled another hearing for Nov. 21.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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