PCHR is target of federal bias lawsuit

A city agency that enforces civil-rights laws is the target of a federal lawsuit by five African-American males who say they’ve been victimized by racism and sexism within the agency.

Alonza Baker, Ernest L. Greenwood Jr., Gregory K. Jenkins, John H. McNeil Jr. and Roderick K. Washington filed a federal lawsuit against the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations in April 2005.

The case has been progressing through the discovery phase of litigation and is finally scheduled for a jury trial on June 2 before U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones 2nd.

Gregg L. Zeff, an attorney for the co-plaintiffs, said his clients faced workplace harassment and discrimination from white managers, particularly after complaining of disparate treatment.

“My clients allege that it was a hostile work environment due to their race and sex,” Zeff said.

He said non-African-American workers and female workers, weren’t treated in the same hostile manner as his clients.

The hostile work environment resulted in a variety of setbacks for his clients, he said, including loss of promotional opportunities, disparate discipline, negative performance evaluations and unwanted transfers.

In the case of Baker, the environment resulted in his dismissal from the agency, Zeff said.

“There was unequal treatment for my clients in a variety of ways, and when they expressed concerns about the situation, it fell on deaf ears,” Zeff said.

David S. Fryman, an attorney for the city, declined to comment for this story.

Baker, a former network-support specialist at the PCHR, was terminated from the agency after the lawsuit was filed and is currently unemployed, Zeff said.

Greenwood serves as an assistant director, in the community-relations division of the PCHR.

Jenkins has been transferred to the city’s Department of Human Services, where he’s employed as a social worker.

McNeil works as a supervisor at PCHR’s North Philadelphia Field Office.

Washington has been transferred to the Risk Management Division of the city’s Finance Department, where he serves as an occupational safety administrator.

The co-plaintiffs declined to comment for this story, on the advice of their attorney.

Zeff said he believes a jury trial is necessary to resolve the case.

“I feel badly that the parties haven’t gotten together to try to work this out by now,” he said. “The agency does good work, and it’s a shame that the people there can’t get along better.”

Zeff noted that all allegations in the lawsuit predate the tenure of Rue Landau, the current executive director of the PCHR, who was appointed by Mayor Nutter in May.

“There are no allegations against the current director,” Zeff said.

Landau declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation.

The lawsuit also claims the co-plaintiffs were excessively scrutinized and denied the independence to perform their duties as they saw fit, while other PCHR workers were allowed to disappear for long periods of time from the office, without their absences reflected in their time sheets.

Zeff said he found it “very ironic” that the PCHR — an agency charged with enforcing civil-rights laws — is the subject of a federal civil-rights lawsuit.

“Whether my clients are right or wrong, the appearance is enough to cast a shadow that should have been removed a long time ago,” Zeff said. “I feel the city isn’t being conciliatory at all. They are taking a very hard line, rather than seeing this as something that should be mediated and discussed.”

Jury selection will begin at 10 a.m. June 2 at the U.S. Courthouse, 601 Market St. The actual courtroom for the trial will be announced at least one business day before then, according to a scheduling order Jones issued last month.

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, the Keystone Press and the Pennsylvania Press Club.