Thursday, May 20, 2004

Coke lawsuit clears hurdle

Judge approves class action in bias complaint

By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Seven African-American men have received a judge's approval to proceed with a class-action race discrimination lawsuit against Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Cincinnati, although they will have to pursue monetary damages separately.

The decision was handed down Wednesday by Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Beth Myers, who inherited a case originally heard - and granted class-action status - by retired Judge Robert Kraft. Coca-Cola appealed, only to have the question of class-action certification sent back and decided at the trial court level.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2001 by lead plaintiff Kenneth Robinson, five fellow African-American alumni of Coca-Cola, one African-American who still works at the Madisonville plant and one former worker of Asian-American and Native-American descent who was dismissed from the suit. The group seeks to represent as many as 1,000 African-Americans who have worked for the company since April 22, 1995.

In their complaint, the seven men describe patterns of harassment by white co-workers and discriminatory treatment by white supervisors. They claim to have been the subject of racial slurs, both spoken and written in bathroom stalls. The seven say supervisors enforced work rules for blacks, while turning a blind eye to violations by white counterparts.

"Our clients tell us that the work atmosphere is similar to the work atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s," said their lawyer, Randy Freking. "They complained and complained and complained, and their complaints were just ignored."

Coca-Cola Bottling of Cincinnati has about 800 employees and is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises, the primary bottler of beverages for the otherwise unrelated Coca-Cola Co. A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Enterprises said the company does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.

"We have a firm policy against discrimination and have worked hard to further accelerate our progress in diversity management by establishing aggressive and innovative initiatives," said the spokeswoman, Ashlie Keener. "We believe that a diverse workplace is essential to our company's success. We remain committed to a fair and equitable workplace where every employee feels respected and valued."

Keener said the company has not decided whether it will appeal Myers' ruling.

Myers, though, did not rule entirely in the plaintiffs' favor. While allowing the case to proceed as a class action to put an end to any discriminatory practices, she wrote that each liability and damage claim is unique and would have to be presented in separate "mini-trials." As a result, she did not allow damage claims to proceed on a consolidated basis.

Freking said he can seek "incidental" damages in the injunction case, but will do as Myers suggested and file economic claims separately.

"Each of the seven plaintiffs will seek individual damages," he said. "We anticipate many other will decide to do the same thing."

In 1990, Coca-Cola Co. settled a class-action race discrimination suit by paying $192.5 million in damages and establishing a framework for the continuing review of diversity and discrimination in the company.


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