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Jury Rules in Favor of CHP in Job-Bias Case

Times Staff Writer

After a decade of litigation, a federal jury on Monday exonerated the California Highway Patrol of allegations that it discriminated against minority officers in making job assignments and awarding promotions.

The jury of six women and four men, however, found that retired Lt. Jeff D. Paige was the victim of retaliation after he filed the class-action lawsuit against the CHP in 1994, but that he was not the victim of intentional racial discrimination.

“The unanimous jury verdict validates what we’ve been saying all along -- the CHP does not discriminate on the basis of race or national origin when employees seek assignments or promotions,” CHP Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick said in a prepared statement.

The jury will next decide whether the CHP should pay the 60-year-old Paige monetary damages for the retaliation, which led to his retirement in 1996. Attorney Della Bahan, who represents Paige, declined to comment on the verdict because the jury has not yet completed its work nor had U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall made a final ruling.

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“The case is still essentially undecided,” she said.

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1991 gave parties the right to a trial by jury in cases alleging intentional discrimination. Under other federal laws, judges also decide whether an agency’s policies and practices actually result in a discriminatory impact on minorities.

Marshall will rule in the upcoming weeks on the related claim, that statistically fewer nonwhites than whites were being promoted between August 1992 and January 1994. If Marshall finds that the CHP’s policies and practices had an unfair impact on minorities, which she has done twice before, she could order the agency to compensate minorities officers with back pay, lost earnings and retroactive earnings.

Marshall could also order the patrol to meet specific goals for promoting minorities within a court-ordered time frame.

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The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Marshall each time she previously ruled for the plaintiffs on the impact issue, finding that additional statistical comparisons were needed before any ruling could be made on the question.

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs allege that 2,000 past, present and future minority officers have been or will be subjected to discrimination by CHP “policies, procedures and practices which denied them equal employment opportunities.”

Helmick said the passage of time -- not Paige’s lawsuit -- has resulted in increased minority representation in leadership ranks.

State law, he said, requires that all sworn employees in the CHP start as traffic officers, who then must work their way up through the ranks.

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“This department has worked very hard to get more and more minorities involved in the operations,” the commissioner said.

“We don’t have the opportunity to just hire off the streets into a higher rank.”

As of July 1, nearly a third of the deputy chiefs and a quarter of the assistant chiefs, captains and lieutenants were ethnic minorities, which include blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, according to CHP statistics.

That marks a significant increase in minority promotions since Paige’s lawsuit was filed nine years ago. At that time, 7% of all deputy chiefs, 5% of assistant chiefs, 11% of captains and lieutenants and 12% of sergeants were nonwhite, according to the lawsuit.

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Minorities represented 1,119 of the CHP’s 5,675 sworn officers, and of those only 102 had achieved a rank above traffic officer, the suit says.

“The evidence at trial was clear that until this lawsuit was filed, there was no increase in the number of officers of color promoted,” said attorney Dan Stormer, who also represents Paige.

Paige, who is African American, joined the CHP in 1966.

He was promoted to sergeant after taking the exam five times, then was moved up to lieutenant, where his career “hit a brick wall,” according to court documents.

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He took the captain’s exam four times between 1988 and 1994, but was never selected, despite being rated the best lieutenant in the CHP in 1992, the documents said. He stumbled on the oral exam, defense witnesses testified.

Paige filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1993, which gave him the necessary approval to sue the CHP for discrimination.

In retaliation, Paige testified, he was stripped of two coveted assignments as head of the division’s officer-involved shooting team and representative to an interagency traffic committee. And finally, he said, he was removed as executive lieutenant.

Defense witnesses said he was transferred for valid reasons unrelated to his lawsuit.

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