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Relman, Dane & Colfax Settles Race Discrimination Class Action Against the Secret Service for $24 Million and Reform of Promotions System

On January 17, 2017, Relman, Dane & Colfax reached a historic settlement in its oldest case – a class action on behalf of more than 100 Special Agents of the United States Secret Service. Filed in 2000, the case alleged that African American Secret Service Agents had been subjected to a racially discriminatory promotion system that denied them a fair opportunity for promotion. For 16 years and through three administrations, Relman, Dane & Colfax, along with Hogan Lovells, fought in both trial and appellate courts to win relief for members of the class. In addition to substantial monetary relief, the settlement requires the Secret Service to make significant changes to its promotion system to ensure greater transparency and accountability in decision making.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Secret Service must engage an independent expert to develop a set of standardized, job-related evaluation criteria to be used in recommending and selecting Special Agents for promotion. Multiple candidates are to be considered for each position, and the reasons for each promotion decision must identify the specific criteria considered. Statistical testing will be conducted on the new promotion system to ensure reliability and to identify and address any adverse impact. The Service is also required to establish a hotline for reporting racial incidents, track discrimination complaints, and provide for discipline for biased conduct or failure to report such conduct.

The litigation commenced shortly after the Firm opened its doors in 2000. Discovery revealed strong evidence of systemic racial discrimination in promotions. African-American Special Agents faced a glass ceiling that blocked advancement through the supervisory GS-14 and GS-15 ranks. Agents were denied promotions to roles they had already held in Acting status, forced to train white Agents selected over them, and denied promotions based on “requirements” not applied to white Agents. Lead Plaintiff Ray Moore, for example, served as the acting supervisor for the entire White House complex, but when it came time to permanently fill that position, it went to a white Agent with less experience whom Moore had to train.

Evidence of discrimination was widespread, reflected in a culture and history of racial bias. Supervisors used the n-word and circulated e-mails depicting cross-burnings, lynchings and other racist symbols. In April 2008, a noose was found hanging in a secure building at the Service’s James J. Rowley Training Center in Beltsville, Maryland. One e-mail chain featured supervisors “joking” about the assassination of a former protectee, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. During discovery, the Firm also uncovered evidence that dozens of white agents, including a high-level supervisor, attended a notorious event known as the “Good Ol’ Boy Roundup,” which featured a “Nigger Check Point” and a skit involving the KKK. Ten of the agents who attended the event were promoted.

During the course of the litigation, a federal magistrate sanctioned the Service on four separate occasions for discovery misconduct designed to cover up its violations of anti-discrimination law. In one incident, the Court found that the Service had intentionally burned documents after being ordered to turn them over to plaintiffs.

The team from Relman, Dane & Colfax was led by Jennifer Klar working with John Relman, Megan Cacace, Glenn Schlactus, Reed Colfax, Jamie Crook, and many others from the Firm over the many years of the litigation. Hogan Lovells joined as as co-counsel in 2005; its team is led by Des Hogan, with assistance from Cate Stetson, Deborah Boardman, Melissa Henke, Erica Knievel Songer, Kathryn Marshall Ali, and others.

Noteworthy Pleadings

To read press coverage of the case, click on the link below: