N.J. District Settles Case On Race Bias

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Heading off a looming showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court over affirmative action, the Piscataway, N.J., school board agreed late last week to settle a race-discrimination lawsuit filed by a white teacher laid off in favor of a black colleague.

In a move that caught many observers off guard, the Piscataway board voted 5-3 last Thursday to settle its dispute with Sharon Taxman, a white business education teacher who was laid off in 1989 so the district could retain Debra Williams, the only black teacher in the business education department at Piscataway High School.

The two teachers had equal seniority and similar qualifications, leading the board to choose Ms. Williams to maintain racial diversity in the business department.

Sharon Taxman

The circumstances of the settlement were unusual. The school board had lost in lower federal courts, but had decided to appeal to the high court against the advice of some civil rights advocates.

Those advocates feared that the high court review could lead to a broad ruling scaling back affirmative action in employment.

Last week, it was announced that a coalition of civil rights groups under the banner of the Washington-based Black Leadership Forum agreed to pay more than two-thirds of the $433,500 settlement to Ms. Taxman.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was said to be a prime mover behind the settlement.

David B. Rubin, the district's lawyer, said the civil rights coalition had discussed the possibility of contributing to a settlement ever since the Supreme Court agreed last June to review the case of Piscataway Township Board of Education v. Taxman (Case No. 96-679).

Debra Williams

"It's no secret that [civil rights groups] and a lot of other folks didn't give us a lot of chance of winning in the Supreme Court," Mr. Rubin said late last week. "Their concern was that if the decision came down against the school board, there was the chance that it could go well beyond" restricting affirmative action in employment.

Stephen E. Klausner, the lawyer for Ms. Taxman, said he first received a phone call about a possible settlement on Nov. 14.

"I was dumbfounded by the offer," he said. Ms. Taxman has always wanted the matter to be closed and had stayed out of the national spotlight that has been focused on the case for several years.

But in discussing the board's initial settlement, Ms. Taxman believed that the amount slated for legal fees was too little, Mr. Klausner said. The two sides continued talks until they reached the $433,500 figure.

Of that, $186,000 will go to Ms. Taxman, which represents a $144,000 back-pay award she won in the lower courts, plus interest. The rest goes for legal costs. Ms. Taxman was laid off for the 1989-90 school year, called back for a year when a teacher went on maternity leave, then laid off for another school year. She regained her job permanently in the 1992-93 school year and has worked in the 6,400-student district since then.

The layoff has provoked years of acrimony and bitterness between Ms. Taxman and the district, as well as between the white teacher and Ms. Williams.

The two teachers have adjoining classrooms at Piscataway High but rarely speak to each other. ("Layoff Case Is Personal in N.J. School," Oct. 8, 1997.)

Ms. Williams, although not a party to the lawsuit, has said she was pained by the situation because it appeared she was retained by the district only because she was black.

According to the Newark Star-Ledger, Ms. Williams attended last week's school board meeting and wept after the board approved the settlement.

For the Best

The lawyers for both sides said the settlement was in their clients' best interests, although Mr. Rubin and Mr. Klausner appeared at least somewhat disappointed that they would not be arguing before the Supreme Court.

"It's every lawyer's dream to argue a case before the Supreme Court," Mr. Rubin said. "But I'm very comfortable with what happened here."

Mr. Klausner said, "I am not an advocate of any civil rights group or any anti-affirmative action group. I have a live flesh-and-blood client, and her wishes are all that counted."

But some organizations that had filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the high court were disappointed that the case appeared to be over.

"We believe it indicates the desperation and weakness of pro-affirmative action groups," said William H. Mellor 3rd, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Justice, which opposes affirmative action. "They know the law is against them. They sought to postpone the inevitable day of reckoning."

Civil rights groups in the Black Leadership Forum could not be reached for comment late last week.

The high court was to hear arguments in the case on Jan. 14. Both sides said the court must agree to dismiss the appeal based on the settlement, but that action is likely to happen within the next few weeks.

It is not unheard of for Supreme Court litigants to settle a case shortly before the justices are to hear arguments.

Winding Legal Path

The Piscataway board was seeking to reverse rulings in lower federal courts that the district's decision to use race as the basis for laying off Ms. Taxman was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled 8-4 that the board did not lay off the white teacher for the permissible purpose of remedying past discrimination in its employment practices, since there were no allegations of such discrimination and the district already employed a significant proportion of black teachers.

Ms. Taxman had also won before a federal district judge in Newark in 1993. Her case had been brought by the Department of Justice under the administration of President Bush.

The case began to attract nationwide attention in 1994 when the Clinton administration sought to reverse the federal government's position while the case was on appeal to the 3rd Circuit court. The Justice Department tried to argue that the school board could make a race-based layoff for the sake of diversity.

The 3rd Circuit court essentially removed the Justice Department from the case. But early this year, the Supreme Court asked the Clinton administration for its views.

The administration argued that the high court should not review the case because the 1989 layoff between two employees of equal seniority was so unusual. But once the justices took the case, the administration switched its 1994 stance and argued that the Piscataway board did violate Title VII with the race-based layoff.

However, the administration argued that the 3rd Circuit court went too far in ruling that diversity could never be the basis for affirmative action in employment.

Staff Writer Kerry A. White and Associate Editor Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily contributed to this report.

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