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A federal appellate judge in Atlanta has censured a former Fulton County, Ga., official named in a reverse discrimination case, saying he was driven by a “racially evil motive.” And in an unusual turn for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a three-judge appellate panel refused to grant immunity to the county’s former manager and its head of contract compliance even though they are public employees. The two, who also were sued individually, according to the verdict, now must pay $275,000 to each of the three white county employees. The panel strongly affirmed the $2.9 million judgment against Fulton County and the officials on June 6. They are former County Manager Robert J. Regus and Michael G. Cooper, who was formerly director of the county’s Department of Contract Compliance and Equal Employment Opportunity. Regus is white; Cooper is black. Cooper now works in a similar post at the state Department of Transportation. The suit was instigated by three employees of the county’s Big Creek Water Treatment Facility: Chester L. Lambert III, William E. Mowrey and James Heath. Their attorney is Edward D. Buckley III of Greene, Buckley, Jones & McQueen. The three county employees claimed in their suit that because they were white men they were disciplined for “failing to effectively deal with a hostile work environment” at the treatment plant, according to the opinion. Lambert v. Fulton County, No. 00-14272 (11th Cir. June 6, 2001). A jury found in their favor after a two-week trial in May 2000. In an unusual shift for the 11th Circuit, the appeals court panel also rejected county attorneys’ arguments that county officials named in the suit should have been shielded by qualified immunity. The panel responded that there was “sufficient evidence” to support the jury verdict and award for punitive damages. The 11th Circuit usually has affirmed qualified immunity for government employees named as defendants. The panel included Circuit Court Judges Susan H. Black, Stanley Marcus and U.S. District Court Judge James A. Hancock. Hancock wrote the opinion. The appellate ruling was particularly critical of Cooper, who was a defendant in another race discrimination case that caused a federal judge in 1999 to junk the county’s affirmative action program, ruling that it was biased against whites. According to Hancock’s opinion, “There was ample evidence for the jury to conclude that the conduct of Cooper was motivated by a racially evil motive or intent.” Cooper targeted the three white employees after conducting an investigation into complaints of racial hostility filed by two African-American employees, according to the facts of the case as set out in the opinion. But county attorneys found Cooper’s first report “totally insufficient” to justify disciplinary action against any water treatment plant employees, the opinion stated. Cooper’s revised report, which named the three plaintiffs among six recommended for disciplinary action, was found by a second team of county investigators, including an African-American, to be replete with “false accusations,” according to the opinion. Regus, the county manager, was aware “that Cooper was emotionally involved in the investigation and that his revised report was based on a poorly conducted investigation which reached conclusions that were not supported by facts and which were the result of a conscious decision by Cooper to color the facts to support the conclusion that Cooper desired,” Hancock stated. But Regus determined to discipline the three white men while choosing not to discipline black employees with similar responsibilities, according to the opinion. He also supplied the Fulton County Commission with Cooper’s report — which was then released to the Atlanta media — while withholding the parallel investigation that labeled Cooper’s report as unreliable and documented efforts by all three plaintiffs to alleviate racial tensions at the treatment plant. The resulting news reports humiliated the plaintiffs, according to the appellate opinion “and were certainly relevant to the issue of compensatory damages. … The fact that [county officials] played no role in the preparation or dissemination of the articles does not render them irrelevant, unfairly prejudicial, confusing or likely to mislead the jury.”

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