Judge Puts Black Officers’ Suit on Docket

Posted December 5, 2003 at 5:04pm

A federal judge ordered a class-action discrimination lawsuit against the Capitol Police Board returned to active litigation Friday morning, three weeks after attorneys for more than 350 black officers called off settlement negotiations.

“It’s unfortunate that settlement discussions have … evaporated,” said U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who schedule another hearing for March 10.

The lawsuit, filed in 2001 by members of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association, includes both current and retired employees who allege that the Capitol Police Department denied promotions to, retaliated against, unfairly disciplined or fired black officers.

Negotiations, presided over by U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola, began in January. But in mid-November attorneys for the black officers canceled negotiations, citing numerous disagreements over the proposed settlement.

“It was with a great deal of consideration that we chose to end negotiations,” said Joe Gebhardt, lead attorney for the black officers.

In response to an inquiry by Sullivan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurie Weinstein, who represents the Police Board, agreed that settlement negotiations had reached a standstill.

“There is nothing else the government can offer to reinvigorate the settlement process,” Weinstein said.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will file a new motion to dismiss the case, and the officers’ attorneys will be given time to respond. Attorneys will likely make oral arguments at the March 10 hearing.

Weinstein also said her office would seek Office of Compliance records to compare the complaints made by the black officers under the Congressional Accountability Act with those filed in court. (CAA gives legislative branch employees the protection of 11 civil rights, fair-employment and anti-discrimination laws that prior to 1995 had not been applicable to Congress.)

The documents would be obtained under a protective order, making them unavailable in the public portion of the court’s records, but would be provided to the officers’ attorneys.

During the hearing, Sullivan, who was briefly joined by Facciola, also criticized Gebhardt and the officers’ other attorneys for discussing details of the settlement negotiations with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in early November.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Nagle raised the incident in a Nov. 25 letter to Facciola.

Details of settlement negotiations are to remain confidential, Sullivan noted, even after discussions have ceased.

“You should have some serious concern about having violated your [agreement] to proceed confidentially,” Sullivan told Gebhardt.

Facciola added of Gebhardt’s decision to share information: “It doesn’t make settlement discussions difficult, it makes them impossible.”

In response, Gebhardt acknowledged that “perhaps we went a little too far” in sharing information with CBC members, who also met with Police Chief Terrance Gainer.

“We’re kind of trapped in this situation. Congress asked us for a report on this case,” Gebhardt added.

Weinstein said the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not comment on ongoing litigation.

Sullivan said he will take the matter “under advisement” and could potentially refer it to the court’s grievance committee.