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While the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was releasing a study showing that Hispanics have made professional gains in the legal profession, the federal agency was admitting in a Miami employment discrimination case that it currently employs no Spanish-speaking trial lawyers in Miami. In September 2002, the EEOC sued Hialeah-based Airguide Corp., now known as Agvent Corp., and two other companies on behalf of eight Hialeah factory workers. The complaint alleged unlawful employment practices regarding sexual harassment and retaliation. The EEOC alleged that three Hispanic women employed by the old Airguide were regularly subjected to “severe and pervasive” harassment by a supervisor. The statements allegedly included, “I want you to sleep with me and then you won’t have problems with the company.” Two of those women and five of their male co-workers, each of whom primarily speaks Spanish, complained about the situation to management and were disciplined, demoted and/or fired, the complaint says. Later, they complained to the EEOC. Airguide has denied any wrongdoing. Trial is set for June 28 before U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard. Seven weeks ago, the EEOC filed court papers seeking an extension of the pretrial deadlines for fact gathering. The extension was necessary, the agency said, because it had been forced to reassign the case to a Spanish-speaking staff lawyer based in Tampa after its only Spanish-speaking lawyer in Miami left the agency. The new lawyer on the case, Carla Von Greiff, needed extra time to digest “thousands” of Spanish-language documents in evidence in the case, the EEOC said. In the filing, EEOC officials said the agency currently employs no Spanish-speaking trial lawyers in Miami, and only one in all of Florida. The agency blamed the problem on “internal staffing circumstances beyond the EEOC’s control.” “The Spanish-speaking attorney duty stationed in Miami � left EEOC’s employ,” wrote Miami EEOC staff attorney Cheryl A. Cooper and EEOC regional counsel Delner Franklin-Thomas late last month. “The attorney’s departure left EEOC without an attorney stationed in Miami proficient in the Spanish language.” Defendant Airguide Corp., through its lawyers, replied that the EEOC’s argument was a ploy that would do no more than jack up its defense litigation costs. Airguide was sold in March to Goodman Global Holdings in Houston, Texas. In turn, Goodman sold off Airguide’s assets to a new owner that operates a company named Airguide Manufacturing LLC at the same location and with some of the same employees, according to a source familiar with the transaction. Airguide Manufacturing is not a defendant in the case. “In a desperate attempt to remedy its own failure to diligently prosecute this case and meet the case management deadlines, plaintiff EEOC disingenuously requests this court to extend its deadlines with false excuses that are unsupported by the facts,” said court papers filed Nov. 7 by Airguide’s Miami attorney, Angel Castillo Jr., a partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius in Miami. “EEOC wants this court to believe that after more than two and a half years investigating this case and with less than three months before the close of discovery it has now determined for the first time that a Spanish-speaking attorney would better serve its needs,” Castillo said. On Monday, Judge Lenard granted the EEOC’s motion for a deadline extension. In an interview, Franklin-Thomas indicated the lack of Spanish-speaking lawyers in Miami was an aberration. She said the Miami district of the EEOC, which oversees the agency’s Florida operations, has seen its base of trial lawyers contract from 13 to six over the past two years. She said those departures were “for normal attrition reasons.” “Of the six, we’ve lost three who have been proficient in the Spanish language,” Franklin-Thomas said. She declined to comment further, or discuss the ethnic mix of the office’s attorneys. But Jennifer Kaplan, an EEOC spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., suggested that budget pressures were at least partly responsible. The agency has been under a near-hiring freeze since August 2001 due to budget constraints. Last year, EEOC’s annual budget was $323 million, compared with $281 million in 2000. Meanwhile, the number of discrimination complaints and cases has remained somewhat constant. According to Kaplan, “more than 80,000 complaints” were filed during fiscal year 2003 versus 79,896 complaints filed in 2000. In 2003 the EEOC brought approximately 360 lawsuits; in 2000 the number was 328. The agency did not provide a breakout of the budget or case filings for the Miami office. In South Florida, the starting salary for EEOC trial lawyers ranges from $48,911 to $82,377. The timing of EEOC’s disclosure that it employs no Spanish-speaking attorneys to prosecute cases in Miami preceded, by a day, the agency’s well-publicized release of its study documenting how women, blacks, Hispanics and Asians had made gains as legal professionals in recent decades. The study results were made public by EEOC chair Cari M. Dominguez, a Cuban-American, during a speech to a national conference of the American Bar Association. “The commission continues to proactively cultivate its relationship with the ABA and other industry groups to ensure that the diversity of America is reflected in and sought by the legal profession,” she said. “We must all make a constant, unwavering effort to ensure that our nation’s law firms are open and inclusive to all individuals,” she said, according to an agency press release. That’s especially true when it comes to the hiring practices of the federal agency whose duty it is to police the nation’s anti-discrimination laws. Cuban-American Bar Association president-elect Ramon A. Abadin called it “deplorable” that the EEOC has no Spanish-speaking attorneys in a predominantly Hispanic area such as Miami. “A large and qualified pool of Hispanic attorneys who could serve the EEOC exists in Miami-Dade County,” Abadin said. “This is ironic to the point of being surreal.”

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