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Judge in Police Lawsuit Urges Settlement

A federal judge hearing a class-action discrimination lawsuit against the Capitol Police Board ordered attorneys for both sides to reconsider settlement negotiations as he prepares to rule on a motion to dismiss the case.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said Tuesday that he would not compose his written ruling until May 25, and asked both parties to use the two-week period to discuss the possibility of renewing settlement negotiations that had ended in November 2003.

The lawsuit, Sharon Blackmon-Malloy et al v. U.S. Capitol Police Board, was filed in 2001 by members of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association. It includes more than 350 current and retired employees who allege that the Capitol Police Department denied promotions to, retaliated against, unfairly disciplined or fired black officers.

During the Tuesday hearing, both Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurie Weinstein, who represents the Capitol Police Board, and Joseph Gebhardt, the officers’ lead attorney, expressed doubt about whether new discussions could be scheduled.

“I don’t really think we’re in a position to resume negotiations at this point,” Weinstein told the court.

Similarly, Gebhardt told the court that the government’s attorneys would need to “put more on the table” if talks were to resume. When the officers’ attorneys canceled the negotiations that began in January 2003, they cited numerous disagreements over the proposed settlement.

Should the parties agree to meet and discuss a possible settlement, however, Sullivan said he will delay his ruling indefinitely, pending the outcome of negotiations.

During the hearing, Sullivan heard arguments from both Weinstein and Gebhardt on a motion by the U.S. Attorney’s Office seeking to dismiss the case.

A major point of contention between the two sides concerns the question of whether the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 — the measure that ended longstanding Congressional exemptions from 11 laws covering civil rights, fair employment and discrimination — provides identical rights as those created under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment.

In court documents, the U.S. Attorney’s Office asserts that a majority of the plaintiffs failed to complete administrative procedures — including counseling and mediation — required by the CAA before filing the lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

“Congress is saying, ‘We’re not going to give you a free pass to the District court,’” Weinstein said, referring to the CAA.

Weinstein argued that only a handful of the plaintiffs — from six to eight officers — completed the necessary steps to pursue a lawsuit in federal court, calling the action “a deliberate tactical decision.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office also argued in court documents that because not all of the plaintiffs completed the necessary administrative procedures, the group cannot file a class action as defined by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

While attorneys for the officers acknowledged that 88 officers did not complete the formal CAA mediation process, they argue that 270 officers did so. As evidence, they cite an August 2001 letter issued by the Office of Compliance Executive Director Bill Thompson.

“They really had no choice but to file a next-stage event,” Gebhardt said of the plaintiffs named in the August letter.

Gebhardt argued that Congress created CAA rather than simply adopting Title VII because it wanted to create its own enforcement agency, the Office of Compliance. Language in the Congressional Accountability Act includes Title VII, Gebhardt said, and it should apply to the officers’ case.

“They should have their day in court,” he said.

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