A federal district court judge ruled recently that more than a dozen lawsuits filed against the school system can be recognized as Title VI claims, which means in part that the lawsuits can move forward without a damage cap.
Some past and present system employees allege in the lawsuits that they were discriminated against because they are female, white, African, or light-skinned African American. The school system has denied all the accusations.
The school system had argued that the cases should have been filed under a different statute - Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which would have meant that the complaints would have been investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission decides if a lawsuit is warranted and caps the damages at $300,000.
Bryan Chapman, the plaintiffs’ attorney, argued that Title VI was applicable because the alleged incidents occurred when the school system accepted federal stimulus money in 2008. The lawsuits are seeking between $5 million and $10 million.
In his opinion, Judge Peter J. Messitte writes: “Section 601 of Title VI provides: ‘No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.’”
The board asked for the claims to be dismissed, arguing that the primary purpose of the federal funds was for educational services for students, not to create or retain jobs. The court disagreed.
Chapman said he was not surprised by the judge’s findings.
“There is a sense of relief, but not surprise,” he said. “I question their judgement on allowing this to get to this point. There will be more claims on individual hostile work environments.”
The school system said it would continue to fight the suits.
“The Court’s ruling requires the plaintiffs to prove their cases on the merits,” Briant Coleman, a school spokesman said in an e-mail. “And we intend to strongly defend against each case that has been filed.”
The lawsuits largely stem from complaints against Largo High School and its principal Angelique Simpson Marcus.
Chapman said Simpson Marcus would call secretaries names, such as “chicken heads” and “hood rats.”
The teachers said they were also mistreated for supporting Jon Everhart, a white teacher, who said he thought Simpson Marcus wanted to fire him because of his race.