Jury finds retaliation in 1st of 4 Iowa bias trial

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In this April 17, 2013 file photo, plaintiffs, from left, Charles Zanders, Tereasa Jefferson, Beverly Couch and Wilbur Devine Jr., look on during a news conference about a racial bias class action lawsuit against the state of Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
 
by David Pitt
Associated Press Writer

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A jury on Thursday awarded a Black woman $130,000, finding that Iowa Workforce Development officials retaliated against her after she filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

The jury found Dorothea Polk, 52, was the subject of retaliation when she was fired from her mail clerk job in 2006.

The Polk County jury also considered whether the state agency discriminated against her based on race when she was passed over for a clerk’s job earlier. The jury didn’t find racial discrimination was proven.

Polk’s lawyers, Thomas Newkirk and Leonard Bates, presented to the jury a damage award of at least $780,000, which would have compensated her for future lost earnings, back pay, and emotional distress for discrimination and retaliation.

The jury, however, found only retaliation for her dismissal and awarded her $80,000 for back pay and $50,000 for emotional distress.

“The jury rejected all three of Ms. Polk’s claims that race was a motivating factor in Iowa Workforce Development’s employment decisions,” said Geoff Greenwood, spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office, which represented the state. “The jury did find in Ms. Polk’s favor on a retaliation claim. We respect the jury’s decision. The state is considering its appeal options.”

The trial is the first of four cases involving workers fired from jobs at IWD between 1999 and 2006.

Polk’s attorneys argued that a culture of discrimination and retaliation existed under IWD’s then-human resources director, Jackie Mallory, who was fired in 2006.

“What this proves is that the state has a continuing problem with retaliation against employees who complain about discrimination,” Newkirk said.

Polk’s attorneys plan to file a motion with the trial judge asking for reinstatement of her job or other relief since the jury awarded her no future earnings or damages for future emotional distress.

Newkirk and Bates, in their trial brief in Polk’s case, said former Department of Administrative Services director Mollie Anderson testified in a deposition that Mallory was fired in 2006 after a review by then-Gov. Tom Vilsack’s administration uncovered concerns of racism and other problems under Mallory’s management. Mallory has called racism allegations against her “absolutely ridiculous,” and other state officials have said Mallory was fired for other reasons.

She is a leading figure in the cases, with Newkirk and Bates arguing that she routinely manipulated the state’s merit system rules in ways that opened up jobs for Whites, limited opportunities for Blacks and punished those who filed complaints.

The Iowa attorney general’s office says race was never a factor in Polk’s employment decisions. Assistant Iowa Attorney General Tyler Smith argued that Polk’s attorneys failed to show she was a competent mailroom clerk.

Polk started working in 2003 as a temporary clerk in Mallory’s office, applied for a full-time position two years later and was deemed highly qualified. But Mallory later sent a letter saying she would not be considered for the job because she failed to properly submit her resume. Polk claims she was shocked because she had hand-delivered her application to Mallory’s secretary.

When Polk confronted Mallory about what happened and asked questions about the hiring process, she claims that Mallory responded, “You people think you get special privilege.” Polk says she later learned a white male from a staffing agency was hired to fill the position on a temporary basis.

Polk filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Months later, she was fired after a review found she did not meet performance expectations and “disrespectfully challenges authority.”
    

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