DeKalb discrimination suit: Jones ordered to pay

A federal court jury on Thursday awarded two former DeKalb County parks employees $185,000 in damages in the long-running racial discrimination case against the county.

In the culmination of a case that wound through the courts for six years, the jurors found that former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, Jones' former executive assistant, Richard Stogner, former parks director Marilyn Boyd Drew and DeKalb County itself were all liable for damages.

Among the defendants, however, only DeKalb County was found to be responsible for racial discrimination; the jury said that Jones, Stogner and Drew "created and maintained a hostile work environment."

The damages were awarded to only two of the plaintiffs: Michael Bryant, who died in February, and John Drake, both former deputy directors of the parks department.

"On behalf of the plaintiffs, I am disappointed with the size of the verdict," lead plaintiffs lawyer Mike Bowers said. "But I have the greatest respect for the jury and its verdict."

Bowers had asked for $2 million in damages. But the plaintiffs said they would also ask the court to order the defense to pay their legal fees, which are estimated at $2 million for the years of litigation.

The jury awarded Bryant's estate, which was represented at the trial by his daughter, Kristi Bryant Yule, $105,000 and gave Drake $80,000. The jury did not award any damages to two plaintiffs: former parks director Becky Kelley, who now is the state's parks director, and Herbert Lowe, a former deputy in the parks department.

Jones was silent and stone-faced as the verdict was read Thursday afternoon. He offered no comment as he left the federal courthouse, saying he would hold a news conference Friday morning. Stogner told WSB-TV that he thought the verdict was a victory.

The decision came after seven days of testimony before a jury of six -- five white and one black -- in a cased filed by four plaintiffs who claimed Jones, DeKalb’s first black CEO when elected in 2000, orchestrated a scheme to replace three top white managers in the parks department with blacks.

The case has been long and costly, with DeKalb spending more than $2.5 million in attorney fees for its defense.

DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May responded sharply to the verdict Thursday afternoon, saying that U.S. District Court Judge Bill Duffey may have influenced the jury.

On Wednesday, with the jury out of the courtroom, Duffey denounced the county's conduct in the case as "shameful" and hinted he might throw out the verdict if the jury sided with the defendants.

Duffey was particularly annoyed that, even after both sides had exchanged thousands of pages of documents in the years before the trial, the county failed to come up with two key documents until the trial had begun. The judge accused the defendants of behavior that was “either terribly incompetent or terribly wrong.”

Commissioner May said on Thursday, “The judge was clearly against DeKalb County. I read the comments in the paper and it almost seems like he influenced the jury to a degree. But he didn’t influence them that much because the damages are minuscule compared to what they were asking for.”

The current CEO, Burrell Ellis, sounded a similar theme: “In light of years of litigation and the amount of damages at stake, I view this as a favorable outcome for DeKalb County. I look forward to seeing this matter closed so that we can focus our attention on the quality of life issues that matter most to our citizens."

May said the county had already set aside some money to cover legal costs, and the damages will likely be covered by the county’s insurance policy, he said.

During his testimony, Jones denied that he discriminated against white workers during his two terms as CEO of the county.

"I wanted the best and the brightest," Jones said. "That meant blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, gay, straight, anybody who wanted to work for DeKalb County," he said.

"I wanted everybody to have a seat at the table. ... I stand by that to this day." Jones acknowledged during the trial that white employees were concerned he wanted to toss them out and replace them with black employees. At a March 2001 meeting of department heads, he made it a point to tell his top management that was not the case, Jones testified.

The defendants

DeKalb County. Found by the jury to have engaged in racial discrimination and ordered to pay $74,000 in damages.

Vernon Jones. The county's first black CEO, elected in 2001, "created and maintained a hostile work environment," the jury said. He was ordered to pay $27,750.

Richard Stogner. A leading figure in four Atlanta mayoral administrations and the executive assistant to Jones in DeKalb, also "created and maintained a hostile work environment," the jury said, and also was ordered to pay $27,750.

Marilyn Boyd Drew. The former head of the parks department also was found liable for the "hostile work environment" accusation, and was ordered to pay $55,500.

Morris Williams. The jury did not find Williams, the current chief of staff of the DeKalb County Commission, liable for any damages.

The litigation began in August 2004. Although the lawsuit centered on what happened to four former parks and recreation employees, the plaintiffs' attorneys were allowed to question witnesses about what happened in other departments to try to show jurors there was a countywide policy or plan to discriminate against whites.

According to testimony, there were 33 black and 61 white upper-level managers in DeKalb when Jones took office on Jan. 1, 2001; by August 2005, there were 60 black and 57 white upper-level county managers.

Jurors heard a tape-recorded phone conversation between Assistant County Manager Morris Williams and Joe Stone, head of DeKalb's human resources department.

At the time of their March 25, 2003, phone conversation, neither Williams nor Stone was aware that one of them had inadvertently allowed their conversation to be recorded on the voice mail system of another county employee.

That employee, the county's information systems director, would later turn over the recording to J. Tom Morgan, DeKalb's former district attorney who is now a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

During the call, Stone appears to tell Williams he was angry that the county's new fire chief, David Foster, wanted to promote four white firemen to the rank of battalion chief.

"He wants to pick ‘em from a population that is solid snow white already," Stone said. "Now he got to cut that [expletive] out with Vernon. ... He told David Foster not to -- we don't promote anybody until you figure out how you can fix this problem."

Staff writers Bill Rankin and Megan Matteucci contributed to this report.