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Court upholds discrimination claims in coroner's office

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the finding that an African-American Marion County Coroner took action against his white chief deputy coroner because of race, but ordered a reduction in the amount of compensatory damages the deputy coroner could receive.

John Linehan was stripped of certain duties as chief deputy coroner and eventually fired by then-coroner Dr. Kenneth Ackles. Ackles chose Linehan as his chief deputy coroner when he was elected. Ackles wanted to find a way to have more African-Americans work in the office.

Issues arose between Ackles and Linehan when Linehan wanted to discipline Alfarena Ballew, an African-American female deputy coroner, who was late to meetings, crime scenes, and the hospital. Ackles did not want to discipline her. Linehan prepared a written reprimand. Ballew later sent an anonymous letter to members of the City-County Council accusing Linehan of ghost employment.

Other incidents occurred that led to Linehan filing a complaint with human resources that he worked in a hostile environment. That same day, Ackles told Linehan he was going to make a change in chief deputies and later stripped him of some duties. Ackles fired Linehan in December 2005.

An administrative law judge and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found the coroner’s office took action against Linehan based on his race and in retaliation for an internal complaint Linehan filed against Ackles. He received front and back pay, attorney’s fees, and $200,000 in compensatory damages.

The 7th Circuit granted the coroner’s office’s petition for review and affirmed the findings of discrimination and retaliation weren’t erroneous in Marion County Coroner’s Office v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and John Linehan, No. 09-3595. The judges did reduce the $200,000 compensatory damages award because of a lack of evidence supporting that amount. The testimony was brief and only indicated that Linehan had undergone weekly therapy sessions for several months for situational depression, wrote Judge Terence Evans.

Although the coroner’s office argued Linehan should receive no award, the judges found some measure of compensatory damages for emotional distress is warranted. They suggested $20,000, but if the respondents don’t consent to the remittitur, there should be a new hearing on the issue.
 

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