Justices reject Iowa class-action bias case
IOWA CITY (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court rejected a class-action lawsuit Friday that alleged the Iowa executive branch systematically discriminated against black job applicants for years.
Current and former applicants had argued that Iowa's 37 agencies favored whites over blacks for jobs in a merit system, allowing favoritism and biases to creep into decisions on which candidates to interview and hire. Their case was based on statistics that suggest blacks received fewer interviews and jobs than whites at state agencies such as the Department of Transportation and social science research contending that Americans subtly favor whites over blacks.
District Judge Robert Blink dismissed the case two years ago after a monthlong trial, finding the plaintiffs didn't show that particular employment practices were discriminatory against blacks. All seven justices agreed Friday that Blink's decision should stand.
The class included more than 5,000 black state employees or applicants for jobs between 2003 and 2012. Their lawyer, Tom Newkirk, argued that the state's record-keeping involving decisions related to 20,000 job openings was incomplete and didn't allow him to identify specific practices that were discriminatory. He argued that data — including some from consultants and experts hired by the state — suggested that blacks were generally disadvantaged compared to whites and should therefore allow for a challenge against the entire system.
Justice Brent Appel rejected that argument. He said there was "substantial evidence" to support Blink's conclusion that the data could have been studied to pinpoint problems with specific screening and hiring practices.
The ruling is expected to end a lawsuit that had lasted for seven years. Plaintiffs had been seeking tens of millions of dollars in lost wages as well as changes to state hiring practices to better track and eliminate racial disparities.
The NAACP had filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Iowa Supreme Court to reinstate the lawsuit, noting the court's history of landmark civil rights decisions.
Three justices joined Appel's opinion. Three others wrote a separate opinion agreeing with the outcome but using different reasoning.
Concurring Justice Thomas Waterman said the NAACP's brief raised "serious questions as to whether the state committed unlawful discrimination." The brief noted that state expert Robert Miller had found an "adverse impact" against blacks in a hiring step for eight agencies that made up 58 percent of the state's workforce involving scoring resumes to select who would get an interview.
"It is certainly possible that inappropriate screening devices may have been used in some of the departments in which Miller found a statistically significant disparity between blacks and whites at step two," Waterman wrote. "But, it is just a possibility and not an aspect of the case that the plaintiffs chose to pursue."
Waterman also said the plaintiffs demonstrated that subjectivity and implicit bias affected multiple hiring decisions, and that it appears "African Americans on the whole were disadvantaged in getting job interviews from some agencies." But he said they did not meet their burden of proving which practices were discriminatory, noting that blacks fared better in some agencies.
Newkirk said he was disappointed in the outcome, but that the ruling had "tremendously positive" aspects. He noted that the state's highest court acknowledged the concept of implicit bias, a first in Iowa.
"It's disappointing that the state may escape on what is effectively a technicality," he said. "Our ultimate goal was to gain increased understanding within the court system for a realistic assessment of how race interferes with equality in the modern world. And we did that. Our clients should be happy about that."