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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Coroner’s Office May Be Liable for Racial Bias

CHICAGO (CN) - Race may have played a role in the firing of two white forensic pathologists from Indiana, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Marion County Coroner Kenneth Ackles and Chief Deputy Coroner Alfarena Ballew, who are both black, were sued for replacing white forensic pathology associates with black workers.

Stephen Radentz and Michelle Catellier, who are both white, founded at Forensic Pathology Associates of Indiana to provide the coroner's office with forensic pathology services and autopsies in 2005. They claim that the office was happy with their work, but cancelled their five-year contract within a few months to instead hire black associates.

A federal judge granted the office summary judgment and dismissed the suit, but the 7th Circuit reversed on Tuesday.

"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," Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the appellate court's three-judge panel.

Ackles and Ballew had claimed that they made the decision to terminate because of budgetary concerns, since the associates' contract allowed them to use county supplies to perform outside autopsies.

But if that were really the case, the office could have severed that provision from the contract, according to the ruling.

"At oral argument, counsel for the defendants asserted that they did not exercise that option because they feared that if they were to do so, the plaintiffs would find the contract too unprofitable and would exercise their option to terminate the contract," Rovner wrote. "Essentially, the defendants are asserting that they terminated the contract because if they just modified it the plaintiffs might terminate it. That is nonsensical."

Instead of trying to negotiate a new contract, the office hired a black forensic pathologist, "and there is evidence indicating that was their intent from the outset," Rovner added.

Furthermore, the office did not save any money through the new hire, the court found.

The judges also pointed out that the racial composition of the office changed dramatically as soon as Ackles took office in January 2005.

"The racial makeup of the office changed significantly during Ackles' tenure," Rovner wrote. "As a whole, the office went from 16.67% African-Americans to 36%. That figure, however, includes the large number of part-time employees, who according to plaintiffs work only sporadic hours and receive no benefits. The racial change was even more dramatic when considering full-time employees. From the time of Ackles' election to the end of 2007, the Coroner's Office changed from 8 full-time white employees to 6, and the number of African- American employees transitioned from 2 full-time employees to 7, or 54% of the full-time workforce. All three full-time supervisory positions were held by African- Americans. The plaintiffs produced evidence that the change was not inadvertent, citing a statement made during the search for the replacement for the defendants. One of the receptionists heard Ackles discussing how to replace the doctors, in which he laughingly told Ballew 'I will put my people where they belong.' That statement was construed as again indicating a desire to place African-Americans in the positions."

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