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Workers claim racial discrimination: Bias or shakedown?

Ford denies accusations in lawsuits, says it will clear its name in court

Josee Valcourt / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- Twenty-two current and former employees have sued Ford Motor Co., claiming the automaker allowed discrimination against black employees to fester unchecked in recent years.

Ford flatly denies the claims and says it will clear its name in court. In that way, the legal fight in Wayne County Circuit Court is similar to many that have played out in courtrooms across America.

But outside the courtroom, the case is far from ordinary.

Not with Willie Gary -- a flashy and controversial Florida lawyer dubbed the "Giant Killer" for winning megaverdicts against major corporations -- leading the charge against Ford.

Not with a coalition of prominent Detroit ministers supporting the plaintiffs by protesting in front of Ford's headquarters, distributing DVDs packed with claims against the automaker, and meeting with company executives behind closed doors.

And not with some in Detroit wondering whether the effort is more about shaking money out of Ford than racial justice.

Ford won the first skirmish on May 1 when Wayne Circuit Judge Michael James Callahan dismissed a suit brought by Ford employee Vinzella Newson, one of five people who filed separate complaints. Other plaintiffs have joined a lawsuit against Ford seeking class-action status.

Newson, who was an executive assistant at the company for 34 years, says Ford managers abruptly transferred her to an analyst position and refused to adequately train her.

But Callahan concluded that nothing adverse happened to Newson: "Her salary did not decrease. Her benefits did not decrease. Her rank did not decrease."

The first of the remaining cases goes to trial in August, and plaintiffs' lawyers said they expect more Ford employees to file suit.

In the meantime, Ford is likely to face a barrage of public criticism that some call social activism and others consider irresponsible pressure tactics.

Diversity backlash?

Tracing the lawsuits to their roots leads back, ironically perhaps, to a major push by Ford to hire and promote minorities. In his push for diversity, then-CEO Jacques Nasser installed a number of blacks in key positions.

One of those was Frank Taylor, who was vice president of materials and logistics at Ford from 1999 to 2002, when he was fired. He later sued Ford for wrongful termination. and the two parties settled the case out of court.

With Taylor gone, according to the lawsuits, blacks in the material planning and logistics division claim they were victims of a backlash against the diversity push.

The lawsuits, filed between April 2004 and January 2006 mostly by salaried employees, claim the division became a hotbed for discrimination. Plaintiffs allege they were denied job promotions in favor of less-qualified whites; paid less than white co-workers in similar positions; overlooked for entry-level executive programs; or offered packages to leave, according to court records.

Some plaintiffs say their complaints to Ford's human resources department were ignored or provoked retaliation from co-workers.

The lawsuits contend Ford conducted a personnel audit in the material, planning and logistics department that identified problems with the treatment of black employees but that the company didn't take action.

Ford declined to confirm or deny this claim.

Plaintiffs have pointed to an e-mail sent to Julius Carrington, 39, of Redford as proof that racism was pervasive in the division.

Carrington, a contract employee for Ford for nearly nine years, is one of five who filed individual lawsuits. Included in his lawsuit is a Nov. 30, 2004, e-mail exchange between Carrington and his new direct supervisor.

"Hello … I was wondering if we could set some time aside to talk about my performance and a possible pay increase?" Carrington wrote.

This reply from his supervisor's computer one minute later: "Now you listen to me n----- you will never receive a pay increase at Ford as long as I'm manager."

Ford admitted in court documents filed Jan. 4, 2006, that the e-mail was sent from the supervisor's computer. However, Ford said it could not determine who sent the e-mail and did not discipline the supervisor.

On March 30, 2005, Carrington's contract with the automaker ended, the suit says.

"It left a dark cloud over my career at Ford," Carrington said.

Other plaintiffs such as planning analyst Marilyn Patterson, 50, claim they were denied advancement despite strong credentials.

"I've been with the company for 29 years," Patterson said. "I have a bachelor's and master's degrees and I never made entry-level management.

"I've done everything that I needed to do and still I cannot break that glass ceiling to entry-level management. It is sexism, it's racism, it's all of the 'isms.' "

Plaintiff Jacqueline Gilchrist -- who was one of the employees recruited to the materials, planning and logistics department as Ford pushed for diversity -- claims she faced hostile treatment from supervisors and was denied promotions and raises despite positive job reviews and her master's in business administration and law degrees. She claims to have suffered from high blood pressure and migraine headaches as a result of her treatment at Ford.

"It comes to a point where we feel we've taken this issue all the way through the company," Gilchrist said. "After you get that high and you realize you don't see things changing, you realize that maybe the only way you can get change is to go outside the company."

Detroit attorney Alice Jennings, a lawyer representing plaintiffs, said the lawsuits paint a clear picture of discrimination at Ford.

"I've been practicing law for 29 years, and I haven't seen cases any stronger than this. I know this because I've digested the facts and evidence," Jennings said.

Ford declined to discuss the case but issued a statement denying the claims.

"Ford Motor Co. does not tolerate discrimination or harassment," said company spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes in an e-mail to The Detroit News. "Every claim is investigated. Employees who violate equal opportunity or anti-harassment policies are subject to discipline up to and including termination. We categorically deny any allegation that Ford management ignores or condones discriminatory behavior in the workplace and are offended by the irresponsible charges."

Ford said in court papers that the lawsuits were sloppy and contained errors. Attorneys on the plaintiff side have amended some complaints to add or clarify information. In one case, the name of an employee who didn't work for Ford was submitted in complaints, the automaker said in court documents.

In the case of Julius Carrington, Ford said it wasn't responsible for performance reviews, promotions or pay increases since Carrington was employed by Kelly Services Inc.

Ford officials point out that the company has been recognized as a leader in corporate diversity. Minorities comprise a quarter of its salaried work force, according to the company. More than 10 percent of its corporate officers are black.

Ministers form coalition

In June 2005, a group of Detroit ministers formed the Coalition for Corporate Justice and Equal Opportunity to support the plaintiffs, some of whom are members of their churches.

At a series of rallies and community events, coalition members circulated a petition that was later forwarded to Ford's board of directors. "As a Ford Motor Company board member with fiduciary responsibility, I request your direct action to end all acts of race, gender and age discrimination," the petition letter stated.

The coalition, which compares its effort to a modern-day civil rights movement, held a caravan-style demonstration in the rain at Ford's Dearborn headquarters in early April. It has produced and distributed a nearly hourlong DVD, which includes charges that racism at Ford dates to Henry Ford and persists today.

The coalition has another rally planned for June and said it wants Ford to form a committee to monitor racism in the workplace and reform company policies.

In December, several of the ministers who formed the coalition met with Ford Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr., Joe Laymon, Ford's group vice president in charge of human resources, and other executives.

Since then, Laymon, one of several high-ranking African-American executives at Ford and the son of a civil rights activist in the South, has met three times with the ministers, according to people familiar with the situation.

After the last meeting in April, Ford received a letter from the coalition of ministers saying their concerns were not being addressed and that they would only meet with Bill Ford in the future, the people said. Ford Motor Co. sent a letter back saying it planned to defend itself in court and would not settle the cases.

"Bill Ford is a nice guy. He wants to do what is right, and we want to help him do what is right," said the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers, pastor of the Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit and one of the founding coalition members. "There are some racist supervisors, and Bill needs to be aware. And when he's aware, he needs to act."

Two high-ranking Ford officials with direct knowledge of the situation told The News they consider the coalition's actions to be pressure tactics designed to force the automaker to settle cases the company believes have no merit.

Coalition members say that's untrue.

"Our intent is not to squeeze money from Ford," Flowers said. "We want corporate justice and equality in the workplace. We're trying to help Ford."

Added the Rev. Norman Thomas of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Detroit and co-chairman of the coalition: "We have a concern for any kind of racism that we find wherever we find it. If we find it in a large corporation like Ford, we want to know what's going on."

But not all members of Detroit's clergy support the coalition and its approach.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield of New Galilee Baptist Church in Detroit questions the coalition's strategy and the attorneys' agenda. Sheffield is familiar with some of the plaintiffs who have made the racial allegations.

"At the end of the day, there are people interested in compensation, but what do they give to the benefit of the entire African-American population at Ford?" said Sheffield, whose grandfather was one of the first blacks to work in the automaker's foundry at its famous Rouge factory complex.

"I think what we need to do is recognize what Ford has done for African-Americans and improve the climate, but not in a way that does further damage."

Tough litigator joins fight

While Ford believes it will prevail in court, it faces a tough adversary in Willie Gary, a lawyer who has repeatedly won massive jury verdicts against large companies like Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak and the Walt Disney Co.

Gary, who was asked by Jennings' law firm to join the legal fight against Ford, did not respond to interview requests from The News.

Gary's life could have been ripped from the pages of a John Grisham novel. Born one of 11 children of parents who were poor migrant farmers, he scratched his way through law school and built a major litigation firm in Stuart, Fla.

While opposing lawyers and judges have questioned his tactics, no one doubts his ability to coax major verdicts out of juries.

Gary was a key figure in the federal lawsuit filed against the rap group Outkast on behalf of the late Rosa Parks.

In 2000, he won a $240 million verdict against Disney on behalf of an architect who said the company stole his idea for a sports complex.

Many of Gary's clients have been referred to him by his good friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. It's been a mutually beneficial relationship.

When Gary sued Burger King Corp. for $1.9 billion on behalf of Detroit fast-food impresario and now federal prisoner La-Van Hawkins, Jackson became a key player.

A St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times story in 2000 described a scene where Hawkins called Gary with concerns that Burger King had hired an African-American public relations firm to counter Hawkins' claims of racism.

"This is nothing to worry about," Gary told Hawkins. "They're walking right into a trap, and they don't even know what kind of battle they're in for. Man, when the time comes for Jesse and (then-NAACP head) Kweisi (Mfume) and all these people to step in, we'll shoot them right down."

Jackson served as the mediator who helped settle the case in 2001.

Gary doesn't hide the trappings of his success. His Web site features pictures of his Boeing 737, dubbed the "Wings of Justice II," furnished with an 18-karat gold sink and a $1.2 million sound system. He drives Bentleys and Rolls-Royces and wears diamond-encrusted gold jewelry.

He's been sanctioned by judges for his tactics, which include allegations of abusive conduct in the courtroom and that he staged a news conference to influence a jury, but he's unapologetic about playing to win.

"It's war when we file those papers," he told CBS' "60 Minutes" in a 2001 profile.

"No more nice guy. Not with opposition. I'm in a fight. And I can't stand to lose. I don't want to lose nothing."

Cases difficult to prove

If it comes to a court battle, racial discrimination cases can be tough to prove, especially when economic challenges are forcing companies such as Ford to shutter plants and cut white-collar jobs.

Terminations and job changes executed for economic reasons can be perceived as discriminatory, said Percy Bates, a professor at the University of Michigan who has conducted research on minorities in the workplace.

Palmer Morrel-Samuels said there are many cases when the company behaves in an ethical way but plaintiffs feel they've been discriminated against.

"It's really important that both sides are examined on the basis of hard evidence," said Morrel-Samuels, a research psychologist who runs EMPA Inc., a Chelsea-based company that designs surveys and assessments for large corporations. EMPA also supplies experts for litigation related to workplace discrimination.

"It takes careful analysis to get to the bottom and find out what's going on."
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