- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Home Depot has been praised for its efforts to create a more diverse and tolerant workplace following the settlement of a 1998 class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit.
But the major retailer, and many other big-name corporations, are finding that even the best efforts won't make them immune to the rising tide of class-action suits around the country.
Three years after spending more than $87 million to settle the 1998 suit, Home Depot now faces allegations that it failed to promote and pay black employees fairly.
In June, five employees of a Home Depot store in College Park filed suit, claiming they were passed over for promotions and paid less because of their race. The plaintiffs' attorneys, LaJuan Martin and Jay Dorsey, are seeking class-action status and $1 billion in damages. Mr. Dorsey's brother, Saunders Dorsey, is representing a group of Home Depot employees in suburban Detroit and the two are in the process of combining efforts.
"My concern is whether [discrimination] is a prevalent practice within the organization, and at this point, I believe it is," Mr. Martin said.
Several other corporations are also struggling against similar discrimination suits, including Wal-Mart, Kmart, Coca-Cola, Waffle House, Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Major corporations are stepping up efforts to prevent workplace discrimination and potentially costly legal trouble at a time when discrimination lawsuits are on the rise.
Employment-discrimination complaints to federal district courts have tripled since 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. And complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have nearly doubled since 1992.
The EEOC currently has 11 cases pending against Wal-Mart Inc. The EEOC has filed 16 suits against Wal-Mart for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act since 1992.
Many companies have been spending massive amounts of money to settle discrimination cases, even in cases where the plaintiffs lack EEOC backing. Nonetheless, many are proving easy prey for law firms as more companies decide to settle discrimination suits, even though they see no merit to the claims.
Home Depot's 1998 settlement came after the EEOC found no basis to continue a suit of its own. And Lockheed Martin spent $15 million to settle a discrimination case earlier this year, even though it claimed no wrongdoing.
Observers say the larger the company, the greater the risk of a discrimination lawsuit.
"It's a challenge for a company with that number of employees and such a high rate of employee turnover," said Heidi Soumerai, an analyst with Walden Asset Management, a socially conscious investment firm in Boston. In the case of Home Depot, she said, "I really believe they want to do the right thing."
Cases of workplace discrimination have risen noticeably in conjunction with the slowing economy.
With jobs more scarce than in past years, employees are more willing to fight discrimination than simply switch jobs. Also, employee layoffs can create scenarios where discrimination is common, and struggling companies often put employee satisfaction on the back burner, attorneys said.
"When employees are being terminated, there's always the chance the company isn't doing it correctly," said Elaine S. Fox, chairwoman of the Labor and Employment Relations Group with the law firm D'Ancona and Pflaum in Chicago.
Home Depot has yet to be actually served with a complaint in the College Park case, but denies any wrongdoing.
"I can tell you that we take every claim seriously," said Suzanne Apple, Home Depot's director of community relations. "We do not tolerate discrimination."
Mrs. Apple maintains that the EEOC has found no merit in any of the claims, and Mr. Martin acknowledged that the EEOC will not be involved in the suit. The EEOC declined to comment on the case.
The 1998 settlement required Home Depot to make changes in its hiring and promotion practices. At all Home Depot stores, procedures for applying for jobs and promotions are much more neutral, clear and uniform than in the past, those involved in the case said.
James Finburg, a lawyer with the San Francisco law firm of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann and Bernstein, represented many of the plaintiffs in that case. He meets with Home Depot officials every six months to ensure the company is abiding by the rules of the settlement.
"I can say that they are not only obeying the [required changes], but that they have wholeheartedly embraced it," Mr. Finburg said. "I'm extremely happy with the changes they've made."

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