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A federal judge in Atlanta has thrown out a nearly 3-year-old race discrimination suit against the Southern Co., Georgia Power Co. and two subsidiaries. In seven orders — one for each plaintiff — U.S. District Judge Orinda D. Evans granted the Southern Co.’s motions for summary judgment in a case that cited hangman’s nooses in Georgia Power offices across the state. The nooses, which power company supervisors said they never had noticed, were removed after the suit was filed in the summer of 2000. Evans said in the order that none of the seven black employees who are plaintiffs in the case established that their race cost them raises or promotions and exposed them to a hostile work environment. Each side will be responsible for its own legal expenses according to Evans’ judgment order. Evans dismissed the suit Monday. Cooper v. Southern Co., 1:00-cv-2231 (N.D. Ga. March 31, 2003). Plaintiffs’ attorneys had said the nooses were symbolic of what they called the dark side of Southern Co.’s “southern style.” They claimed that company executives routinely alienated black employees and promoted a working environment that was hostile to African-Americans. The suit originally sought class action status for an estimated 2,400 black employees. Evans rejected class certification in 2001. The case is the first major race discrimination case decided in U.S. District Court in Atlanta since Coca-Cola Co. settled a similar race discrimination case for $192 million in 2001. Among the firms representing plaintiffs in the Coke case was Atlanta’s Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, which also represented the Southern Co. plaintiffs. Bondurant partner Michael B. Terry said, “We were disappointed by the ruling and intend to appeal.” Terry added, “I think the only thing I can say is that the judge’s view of the evidence was substantially different from ours. The judge’s view of the inferences to be drawn from the evidence were substantially different from ours.” The loss of class certification in October 2001 should have played no role in Monday’s ruling, Terry continued. “If anything, legally it should have made our case easier. You don’t have to prove a pattern necessarily. All you have to show is discrimination against the individual plaintiffs.” Evans spelled out why each of the seven plaintiffs, in her judgment, failed to demonstrate that Southern Co. executives had engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination that targeted them personally. Evans said the presence of the nooses didn’t prove that the supervisors who tolerated them were racially biased or discriminated against black employees in promotions and salaries. And she rejected expert reports filed by the plaintiffs that, according to her order, indicated “some disparity of compensation between black and white employees.” Evans stated in her order that the statistics presented by the plaintiffs were generalized and failed to demonstrate that Southern Co. “intentionally discriminated” against them. “The documents indicate average salaries of employees divided by racial classification but do not control for factors such as education, experience or skill level and thus cannot prove that the defendants discriminated on the basis of race,” she wrote. As a result, she noted in a separate order, the statistics were analytically “deficient.” In addressing allegations that one plaintiff, Carolyn Wilson, was turned down for promotions that went, instead, to other white employees, Evans noted that Wilson “cannot overcome defendants’ asserted non-discriminatory reason for the decision not to hire her. …” In Wilson’s case, Southern Co. had “a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason … ” for promoting the white employee. Noting that Wilson acknowledged that she had “ lesser qualifications” than the employee who received the promotion, Evans rejected arguments that her qualifications “were not the real reason for the decision. … Defendants are entitled to determine which qualifications are most desirable in a candidate for a particular position and it is not the job of this Court to second-guess those business decisions.”

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