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A federal jury in Philadelphia awarded more than $300,000 in a reverse discrimination suit brought by two white workers at the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) who said they were cheated out of promotions they earned because the process was designed to guarantee that a black man would get one of the posts. The cost to PHA is likely to double because the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Nancy D. Wasser, Leigh A. Jerner and Jack L. Gruenstein of Philadelphia, are now entitled to petition for fees and costs for their 18 months of litigation and a two-week trial. And the litigation isn’t over yet. Following the jury’s award on Monday, U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno must still decide whether to order PHA to give the plaintiffs the supervisory promotions that the jury said were illegally denied. Race even became an issue in jury selection when the plaintiffs’ lawyers objected that PHA’s lawyers — Patrick J. Harvey and John P. McLaughlin of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads in Philadelphia — were using their peremptory strikes to keep white men off the jury. In what might be termed a “reverse Batson violation,” Robreno sided with the plaintiffs and disallowed the defense’s third strike of a white male. In the end, the jury consisted of five white women, one black man, one Hispanic man and one white man. Testimony in the trial showed that the two plaintiffs, Gerald Paladino and James Wright, were both working as PHA housing rehabilitation specialists in February 1997 when the agency announced three openings for supervisor positions. At the end of the interviewing process, Paladino was ranked first among the candidates and Wright was ranked second. Both men were told they had received the promotions in letters from then-PHA Executive Director John White Jr. Soon after, PHA rescinded the promotions saying that a charge of race discrimination by a black worker meant that the agency would go through the selection process a second time. In a jointly filed brief, the plaintiffs lawyers — Wasser and Jerner for Paladino; Gruenstein for Wright — described what they claim happened next. “Believing that the promotions process would be fair, plaintiffs continued their quest to become supervisors. What they did not know was that the process was rigged, that they would be the victims of discrimination and that they would never get the promotions.” The brief said the white men “later learned the first complaint of race discrimination was phony, PHA’s investigation was a sham, the panelists who were judging the applicants had been warned to avoid a discrimination suit by a minority and to change the original results.” The final decision, they said, was made “not on merit, but on racial preference.” Much of the testimony at trial focused on the black man who ultimately got one of the promotions and whose charge of discrimination had led to the second round of interviews. The plaintiffs set out to prove that George Fields was “handpicked” and that he had “bragged he was promised the job.” They also attempted to show that PHA officials fabricated a story about Fields being denied a fair shot at the job in the first round since he was out of work during the period the job was posted. In fact, the plaintiffs said, Fields had missed just one day of work during that time and had simply failed to apply for the job. One of the key disputes at the trial centered on “missing” documents that the plaintiffs insisted they could have used to prove their claims, including the scores from the first round of interviews in which they said they were ranked first and second. Robreno agreed to instruct the jury that it was free to draw an “adverse inference” and assume that the documents would have supported the plaintiffs’ claims had they been produced. Hoping to drive that point home in common-sense terms, Wasser argued in her closing to the jury that it should think of the missing documents the same way that a parent might treat a child who claims to have “lost” his or her report card. No parent with common sense would simply believe a child who says he or she has good grades — the parent would normally call the school to make sure. Defense attorneys Harvey and McLaughlin did not return phone calls seeking comment, but PHA issued a statement vowing to appeal. “The Philadelphia Housing Authority is proud of our record of fairness in hiring and promotion, and the outstanding diversity of our team. Monday’s [verdict] unjustifiably calls into question our excellent diversity performance and the efforts we have taken to ensure fair treatment and consideration for all PHA employees,” PHA spokeswoman Robin Leary wrote. “Due to the constraints upon us because the case remains in litigation, PHA is limited in what we can say about the legal ramifications of the situation. PHA will appeal the ruling due to our belief that our promotion system is fair and in no way discriminatory toward any individual or any particular race. We are optimistic that when all the facts are considered, PHA’s promotion practices will be found to be non-biased and fair to all employees,” Leary wrote.

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