WASHINGTON – A U.S. District Court judge has approved a class-action suit against a Baltimore laundry where African American workers said they were frequently subjected to racial slurs and got less pay and worse jobs than Hispanic workers.
Judge William D. Quarles Jr. also refused Up-to-Date Laundry Inc.’s request for summary judgment in the case, which claims to represent 541 current and former black workers.
The company cleans hospital linens under what the court described as “difficult” conditions in the soil room, where bloody and soiled linens are sorted by unskilled African American and Latino employees.
But the black workers said officials at the laundry made “recurrent and widespread” racist remarks, openly using the word “nigger” and making comments like “Latinos worked harder” and blacks were only interested in getting drunk and using drugs.
In addition to the atmosphere that was permeated with racial hostility, the black workers also presented evidence that they were paid less than their Hispanic counterparts, were given fewer hours — including overtime hours — and got less-favorable job assignments.
The workers filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which found probable cause in 2001 that the laundry had “systematically discriminated” against its African American employees. Subsequently, five workers went to court asking to represent all 541 blacks who have worked at the laundry since 1998.
The laundry opposed the class action petition, noting, among other reasons, that one plaintiff did not always accept overtime hours when offered and that not all employees suffered the racial slurs.
Quarles, in a decision signed Jan. 23, said the case should go forward and granted the class certification. But Quarles granted only partial class certification for the damages phase of the case.
The attorney for the laundry, Jeanne M. Phelan, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the case Thursday.
Betty Grdina, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the 541 people covered by the court’s decision could change if any of them opts out or others join the action. Because of the partial victory on the determination of damages, however, Grdina said that if damages are too individualized, the compensation could be decided separately.
Stephen J. Nolan, a trial attorney in Baltimore who is not involved in the case, said a class-action certification benefits plaintiffs because they can continue the process as a group. Not only is it cheaper for the plaintiffs, he said, but it avoids the risk of inconsistent judgments between individual cases.
-30- CNS 01-29-04