John Shiffman, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 20, 2005
Four white men fired by the Philadelphia School District have won a racial-discrimination lawsuit, and a federal jury awarded them nearly $3 million in damages.
After Friday’s verdict, Carl E. Singley, a prominent African American lawyer who represented the school district, exchanged words with some members of the all-white jury as they rode a courthouse elevator. He called them “crackers,” four jurors said in interviews.
Within 30 minutes, U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle 3d brought Singley and five of the seven jurors in the case back into his courtroom. Singley, a former Temple Law School dean, promptly apologized.
“What I did and said was inappropriate,” Singley said, according to a transcript. “I should not have disrespected you, and I do apologize.”
Reached yesterday, Singley declined to comment.
In a statement last night, the school district’s chief executive officer, Paul Vallas, said he had not yet spoken with Singley about the elevator incident but planned to pursue the matter.
“If the statement is true it is outrageous and hurtful to us all,” Vallas said.
The unusual post-verdict hearing came at the end of a two-week trial during which the four white men alleged that they were wrongfully fired from the district’s purchasing department in 2003. They alleged reverse racial discrimination and said that the district’s chief purchasing officer, Kimberly Sangster, retaliated when the men initially complained of discrimination.
“What we stressed to the jury is that the law in America is that equal opportunity in employment applies to everyone,” said lawyer Michael D. Homans, who represented the four plaintiffs with Lizanne V. Hoerst. “You can’t discriminate against anyone based on race — white people, black people, Hispanics. Discrimination infected the decision-making of Kim Sangster.”
Shortly after the verdict, five jurors entered the elevator with Singley and other trial participants for the ride down from the 16th floor.
In interviews yesterday, four of the jurors in the elevator — Harrison, Furman, Dickel, and Patricia Lewis of Malvern — gave the following account.
Singley said: “I hope you can sleep tonight.”
A juror replied: “I’ll have no trouble sleeping at night, thank you.”
Singley: “God bless America.”
Another juror: “God bless America. That’s why I’m glad I live here.”
Singley: “You’re just a bunch of crackers.”
The fifth juror in the elevator could not be reached for comment. A member of the school district’s defense team gave a slightly different account. That person said a juror addressed Singley first.
Juror to Singley: “How’re you doing?”
Singley: “I hope you can sleep at night with the decision you rendered.”
Juror: “I’ll have no trouble sleeping at night, thank you. This is America. God bless America.”
Singley: “That’s only if you’re crackers.”
What happened next is not disputed. After Singley stepped off the elevator on the ground floor, the jurors decided to go back to see the judge.
“We thought it was rather rude,” Harrison said. “He was obviously upset.”
Dickel said she “was quite shaken up by it because he said it so unprofessionally and confrontationally . . . . I thought, ‘Is this what happens all the time?’ “
Bartle received the five jurors in his chambers, and, according to Furman, told them Singley’s comments were inappropriate. Bartle declined to be interviewed yesterday.
Bartle then called Singley and the other lawyers back to his courtroom. The judge began to call the jurors to the microphone to explain what happened, but Singley said it was not necessary.
“I admit to making inappropriate comments,” Singley said, according to a transcript.
The four plaintiffs in the case were each awarded $500,000 for “past, present and future mental anguish, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and humiliation.” They also got their old jobs back, plus back pay.
Their lawyer, Homans, said he expected to ask the judge to order at least an additional $400,000 for legal fees.