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Construction firm settles race bias claim

After years of pushing for a promotion and two more years of legal wrangling, James Williams has settled his racial discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, Reliable Contracting Co. Inc.

The parties to the case did not make the results of the Jan. 13 settlement public. An attorney for Reliable, M. Evelyn Spurgin with Hillman, Brown & Darrow PA in Annapolis, said she would not comment on the case because of its confidential nature.

Williams, a black man, complained that his employer had opportunities to promote him, but that the firm only advanced white employees, according to a joint pretrial submission.

He had asked for $130,000 to $150,000 in past lost wages, $300,000 in future lost wages, $250,000 in noneconomic damages and $50,000 in attorney’s fees.

In 1992, Williams began working for Reliable as a laborer in the traffic division of the construction firm, based in Millersville. He climbed the ranks within his division to flagger and in 1997 to traffic foreman, managing a crew of two to seven workers.

Several years later, Williams began inquiring about how he could get promoted beyond traffic foreman, a level he claimed no black employees had reached in the company’s 75-year history.

According to court documents, he said the firm managed to exclude black employees from upper management positions by creating a hiring and promotion system that lacked clarity.

No formal qualifications existed for the positions, and prior to 2005, no job duties were listed. The firm did not accept resumes or applications for internal job openings.

When asked to explain what would get an employee promoted, a company general manager said “It depends on personalities, experience, leadership abilities, those kind of things,” according to court documents.

Williams told management of his desire to receive a promotion beginning in 2003, and proposed that the company create a position — superintendent of the traffic department — for him to fill. The company said it was not necessary to create a new department and position for him, although he said a white employee had gotten a promotion that way.

“Williams never demonstrated why, from a business perspective, creating a department and giving him the position of superintendent would benefit Reliable,” the firm’s lawyer wrote in the joint pretrial submission.

Between 2003 and 2007, five superintendent or project manager positions came open in the paving department, but all the jobs were given to white employees. The company said that while Williams “was a valued employee who was eager to learn and had potential for further promotion,” he did not advance because no positions opened up or because more qualified employees got those jobs.

Reliable said Williams was involved in some 2006 incidents that made the company question his leadership skills, including one situation where he pushed or struck his supervisor and another where an angry driver pulled up to Williams and hit him with his car. Williams responded by retrieving a weapon from his vehicle, according to court documents.

In April 2007, in what Williams called a symbolic gesture to show his frustration at not being promoted, he ripped up his “traffic card” — a document showing he had completed a training course required by the State Highway Administration — and left it on his supervisor’s desk. Williams said the company had another card on file.

The company decided to demote Williams, not because he ripped up the card, but because Williams said he was scared to continue to work in the traffic division, which he denies. He lost his salaried pay and began making $14 an hour in the utilities division. Williams quit two months later.

“The true fact is that because Plaintiff complained about not being promoted, Defendant decided to punish the uppity black man,” wrote Williams’ lawyer Bart Gary, a Baltimore solo practitioner, in the pretrial submission.

In December 2008, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a right to sue letter. Williams filed his complaint in February 2009.

JAMES WILLIAMS V. RELIABLE CONTRACTING CO. INC.

Court:

U.S. District Court in Baltimore

Case No.:

09-484

Dates:

Incident: 2003 to 2006

Suit filed: Feb. 6, 2009

Settlement: Jan. 13, 2011

Plaintiffs’ Attorney:

Bart Garry, Law Office of Bart Garry in Baltimore

Defendant’s Attorney:

M. Evelyn Spurgin of Hillman, Brown and Darrow PA in Annapolis

Counts:

Racial discrimination