After seven years of legal haggling, a thrown-out settlement and a change in legal teams, some African-American employees of Boeing are...

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After seven years of legal haggling, a thrown-out settlement and a change in legal teams, some African-American employees of Boeing are getting their day in court.

A class-action lawsuit that alleges Boeing discriminated against African Americans in promotions is scheduled to begin jury selection today, barring a last-minute settlement that lawyers for both sides said was unlikely. The trial is slated to start Monday.

In 1999, as part of a high-profile settlement brokered by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Boeing agreed to pay $7.3 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of 15,000 African-American employees. In a settlement with a total value of $15 million, the company, which admitted no wrongdoing, also agreed to make several changes in promotion and hiring practices, and in the way it monitors compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the settlement, agreeing with objecting class members who said the payout was inadequate and unfairly distributed, and that the attorney fees of $4 million were too high.

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With new lawyers appointed by the court, the case, known as Williams v. Boeing, is in federal court in Seattle again.

Presiding over the trial is U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman, who oversaw the recent $72.5 million settlement in a gender-bias suit brought on behalf of 17,690 female Boeing employees.

Unlike that sex-discrimination case, in which women alleged discrimination in hiring, pay and promotion, the question here is now limited to whether Boeing intentionally passed over African Americans for promotions.

Williams v. Boeing


A timeline of key events in racial-discrimination case:

June 1998: Class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of 15,000 African-American employees.

January 1999: $15 million settlement reached. Boeing admits no wrongdoing but agrees to changes in hiring, pay and promotion procedures.

April 1999: A minority of class members object to settlement terms as inadequate and unfairly distributed.

September 1999: U.S. District Court certifies settlement, and the case is appealed.

April 2003: 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agrees with plaintiffs and sets aside the settlement; sends case back to District Court.

December 2005: Jury trial to begin.

Source: Seattle Times

In pre-trial rulings earlier this year, Pechman rejected plaintiffs’ requests to consider pay discrimination, and she reduced class eligibility to the roughly 4,000 salaried employees working at historically Boeing-owned facilities nationwide since 1994.

Employees excluded from the class — hourly workers and employees at facilities acquired through mergers — filed a separate class-action suit this year in Chicago, where Boeing’s corporate headquarters are located.

To win the case, plaintiffs’ attorneys say it’s enough to convince the jury that Boeing failed to take race out of the question when considering personnel changes, not that any individual was specifically denied a promotion.

A key piece of evidence will be company documents that came to light during the gender-bias lawsuit — and which Boeing fought hard to suppress.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say internal audits show Boeing failed to maintain an adequate applicant tracking system or monitor promotion decisions as required by federal affirmative-action guidelines for government contractors.

“Boeing’s predominantly white upper management has known for a long time that there were no policies in place to protect African Americans from discrimination against the good old boy network that has long existed throughout the company,” says Craig Spiegel, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

Boeing denies fostering a hostile work environment, or any negligence in complying with the antidiscrimination obligations it faces as a federal contractor.

“Internal company audits are irrelevant because they were conducted in relation to compliance with affirmative-action guidelines, and what’s alleged here is racial discrimination,” says lead Boeing attorney Jeffrey Hollingsworth.

Boeing’s legal team also is encouraged by a favorable ruling in an ethnic-bias suit last year.

A federal jury ruled the company did not discriminate against 1,850 Asian American technical workers alleging inequitable pay and promotion opportunities.

“The issues in every case are unique, but many of the underlying allegations relating to internal studies and negligence — which the jury concluded were untrue — are the same,” says Hollingsworth, who also tried the Asian American case.

Josh Goodman: 206-464-3347 or jgoodman@seattletimes.com