Judge Expected to Approve Discrimination Settlement

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

This week a federal judge is expected to approve the largest settlement ever reached in the metropolitan area in a racial discrimination suit.

The Illinois Central Railroad will pay $10 million to a large group of blacks who tried in vain to get jobs with the railroad.

The case is also one of the longest, most bitterly fought and most expensive for a plaintiff's lawyer. It's a class action filed in 1981, styled as Robert Earl Mister versus Illinois Central Gulf Railroad.

Although the class now includes about 600 people, the case was triggered in 1979 when 175 black residents of East St. Louis drove to Carbondale to apply for jobs as laborers, positions whose chief requirement was a strong back. The IC's office there was hiring workers to repair tracks in downstate Illinois.

None of this group was hired. In 1979, according to court papers, the IC hired 11 percent of black applicants and 39 percent of white applicants for these positions. In 1980 the railroad hired no blacks and 6.1 percent of the whites who applied.

The IC argued that it preferred to hire workers with short commutes. But it turned out the company hired plenty of whites who had long drives to the job sites. When work was needed in East St. Louis itself, the railroad used white workers who lived elsewhere.

These types of cases usually involve expert witnesses who are statisticians. The plaintiffs's numbers expert testified that the chances that the IC's record "was consistent with race-neutral hiring" were less than one in a million.

The IC denied the charges and to this day "does not admit any wrongdoing." After a three-week trial in 1985, U.S. Judge James L. Foreman of the Southern District of Illinois ruled in favor of the railroad. But the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the decision, declaring, "It is hard to imagine a stronger case, short of an announcement of discrimination."

That was in 1987. Since then the two sides have been fighting over the amount of damages. Last week Foreman heard the testimony on the $10 million settlement and on attorneys' fees.

The case was won by Jerome J. Schlichter of Schlichter Bogard & Denton. In an affidavit files by Richard Chase, an Illinois Legal Services lawyer. Schlichter was praised for taking such an expensive case entirely on contingency.

Over the 12 1/2 years years, Chase stated, Schlichter and his firm committed more than 20,000 lawyers' hours, nearly 8,000 paralegal and law-clerk hours and more than $1 million in out-of-pocket expenses. Much of the money went to pay expert witnesses.

Chase stated that no other lawyer or law firm in the St. Louis area would have been willing and able to take a case like this and risk getting nothing in return for that kind of time and expense. And no Legal Services program in the country could have afforded to litigate this case, Chase added.

A big footnote to the case: When the $10 million is approved and paid, Whitman Corp., the former parent of the IC, will presumably be released from an $18 million bond that the aggressive Schlichter got a state court to require. He apparently was worried that after the 1989 spinoff of IC from Whitman, the railroad might not have the resources to pay his clients.

Richard E. Boyle and Richard F. Nash of Belleville represented the IC.