Firing for Old Crimes May Leave Schools Liable

     CINCINNATI (CN) – Two black Cincinnati public school workers who were fired after mandatory background checks turned up criminal records can sue, a federal judge ruled.
     Gregory Waldon and Eartha Britton were fired in 2008, shortly after a new Ohio law required public schools to fire any employees with certain crimes on their record, regardless of how long ago they were committed or the employees’ service to the school system.
     Waldon and Britton, like seven of the eight others who were also fired at that time, are black. They filed suit against Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), arguing that “their terminations were based on state legislation that had a racially discriminatory impact.”
     CPS claimed that the firings were simply part of the schools’ compliance with state law, but U.S. District Court Judge S. Arthur Spiegel refused to dismiss the case Wednesday.
     The ruling notes that Waldon was convicted of felonious assault in 1977. After a two-year prison stint, he spent the next three decades working for Cincinnati Public Schools, most recently as a systems monitor, a job that requires no contact with students.
     Britton, who served 18 years as an instructional assistant, was convicted in 1983 of acting as a go-between in the purchase and sale of $5 of marijuana.
     Spiegel found that Waldon and Britton raised plausible allegations of disparate impact discrimination, and that the court could find that CPS implemented the state mandate in violation of Title VII.
     “Although there appears to be no question that defendant did not intend to discriminate, intent is irrelevant and the practice that it implemented allegedly had a greater impact on African-Americans than others,” the ruling states.
     The amount of time elapsed since the crimes took place – in this case, decades – and the employees’ work records weighed heavily on court’s decision.
     “Obviously the policy as applied to serious recent crimes addressed a level of risk the defendant was justified in managing due to the nature of its employees’ proximity to children,” Spiegel wrote. “However, in relation to the two plaintiffs in this case, the policy operated to bar employment when their offenses were remote in time, when plaintiff Britton’s offense was insubstantial, and when both had demonstrated decades of good performance. These plaintiffs posed no obvious risk due to their past convictions, but rather, were valuable and respected employees, who merited a second chance.”
     Spiegel determined that “the court cannot conclude that defendant was compelled to implement the policy, when it saw that nine of the ten it was terminating were African-American. As state above, Title VII trumps state mandates, and defendant could have raised questions with the state board of education regarding the stark disparity it confronted.”

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