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Coroner's office loses 2nd reverse-discrimination appeal

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a reverse-discrimination case against Marion County should be able to proceed in federal court in Indianapolis because evidence shows the former county coroner’s decision to terminate a forensic pathology company’s contract may have been based on race.

A unanimous decision came today in Stephen Radentz, et al. v. Marion County, et al., No. 10-1523, which involves the line of litigation stemming from actions by former Marion County Coroner Kenneth Ackles and Chief Deputy Coroner Alfarena Ballew when they were in the office in 2005 and 2006.

In this case, Ackles and Ballew terminated plaintiff Forensic Pathology Associates of Indiana’s five-year contract that had started in 2005 and entailed providing the county office with physicians and support staff for forensic pathology services and autopsies. The management contended it was because of excessive costs and the contract termination saved the county several hundred thousand dollars a year on what it paid for out-of-county autopsy supplies. Forensic Pathology alleged the county office had been pleased with the quality of work and instead this was part of a broader effort to replace white workers with African-Americans. At one point after the contract’s termination, Ackles indicated he’d been pleased with the forensic services, but at the time cited a contract provision allowing termination without cause within six months to end the contract. He replaced Forensic Pathology with an African-American pathologist, Dr. Joyce Carter. All of that led to this federal suit.

U.S. Judge William Lawrence in the Southern District of Indiana granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment against Forensic Pathology and its founders. But the 7th Circuit disagreed with those findings based on the record in this case, determining at several points that evidence shows a trend that Ackles and Ballew based their decision more on race than budgetary reasons.

Part of the evidence in the record included statements from employees who’d overheard statements about replacing white workers with African-Americans, the overall racial makeup shift in that office during Ackles’ term, and that the contract allowed for ending those autopsy services rather than cancelling the entire contract itself. The appellate panel rejected the defendants’ arguments that the court didn’t have the authority to examine the office’s decision-making process, finding that it had the authority to determine whether the asserted justification given was honest-held.

“Taken as a whole, we cannot conclude that a jury would have been compelled to believe the defendants’ explanation,” Circuit Judge Illana Diamond Rovner wrote for the panel that also included Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook and Judge Richard Posner. “The issue before us is whether summary judgment was proper. There is a factual dispute as to whether the decision to terminate the contract was based on a nondiscriminatory reason or whether it was race-based.”

This decision remands the case back to the District level to continue proceedings.

This is the second time during the past year the county has lost a case involving the former coroner. In July 2010, the 7th Circuit in Marion County Coroner’s Office v. EEOC, No. 09-3595, affirmed the District’s findings of discrimination and retaliation in a suit filed by former Chief Deputy Coroner John Lineham. Lineham, who is white, was fired by Ackles in December 2005 and replaced with Ballew, an African-American woman.
 

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