Rasor Firm Wins Big Workplace Discrimination Suit

By Crystal A. Proxmire

Michael Hester's job was hard enough. For over ten years he worked as a mason doing maintenance work in the Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit. In a complex surrounded by two, 12-foot fences, electronic detection systems, razor-ribbon wire, gun towers and buffer fencing, and filled with people imprisoned on a variety of charges, Hester would do hard work involving building, construction and repair. At 62, two years shy of retirement, he looks forward to the end of working.

But it's not just the dismal environment or the physically exhausting work that has worn on Hester's soul. For much of his career there, Hester was the victim of ongoing racial discrimination at the hands of his supervisors.

Around the prison, black workers were called "Democrats" and often faced mockery and unfairness in job assignments. But in 2008 it got worse when a man named Sergio Paglia, who Attorney Jonathan Marko called a "hard core racist," took over as supervisor. Marko said that Paglia "admitted that black kids would come and ruin his baseball games as a child and said that the riots [of the 1960s] ruined his life."

In a trial that ended on Dec. 14, 2012, witnesses described how Paglia would call Hester lazy, swear at him and constantly single him out. In the mornings when the workers would go over their orders for the day, Paglia would come in and make the black workers leave the room. "The white buys were embarrassed for the African Americans in the shop," Marko said. "It got so bad that the white guys stood up for them." Complaints went "all the way up the chain" in the prison, including to the Warden. When Paglia got sick of the complaints, he ordered Hester to an electrical job that was beyond his job training and requirements, and could easily have killed him.

Hester refused and told him to put the job order in writing, and he testified that he was told to "choose between your life or your job." Hester was written up when he refused. Finally he'd had enough and he turned to The Rasor Law Firm for help.

At the end of the trial the jury awarded Hester a $452,000 settlement. Marko explained that the action was not just because of the actions of one mean supervisor, but a systematic problem at the facility. "The real problem in the DOC [Department of Corrections] as a whole. The fact is it was allowed to go on so long. They condoned the behavior and they are responsible."

Jim Rasor, founder of the Rasor Law Firm, is an openly gay attorney who helps clients with a wide range of legal issues including discrimination cases. He and Marko worked to bring Hester some relief. But there are still cases they must turn away.

"Employment laws are tough," Marko said. "There is no right to work. Employers don't need a reason to fire you. The trick is identifying how a case may work under the laws we have."

For example, the firm is currently working on a case in Grand Rapids Federal Court on behalf of a teacher who was fired from the Corunna Public School District and treated differently than other teachers because she is gay. "Though it's not a protected class, it can fall under discrimination based on gender," Marko said.

However, in not all cases is the discrimination based on gender very clear. "Gay people are not a protected class. I've had clients that I've had to turn away. I had a homosexual male who was an employee of a pizza place. He was subjected to discrimination by a manager who was extremely mean to him after learning his sexual orientation. But he never brought up gender. This gentleman should have had a chance to go through the court system. That's a case of justice lost."

Rasor made clear, however, that people who feel like they have been discriminated should still contact his office for a consultation. "We fight to win at Rasor Law, so we get very creative when we have someone in our office that might not be able to recover under traditional theories. But there are cases that just can't be brought under the existing law, and even one of those is too many!"

While the law continues to evolve, and cases like those brought by his firm continue to send the message that discrimination is wrong (and expensive), Rasor does other work to lift up the LGBT community. Since 2010 he has served on the city commission for Royal Oak, and recently ushered in the beginnings of a human rights ordinance which is expected to be complete in 2013. He said that the human rights ordinance is "the right thing to do and the right time to do it."

His law firm also offers services to help LGBT families such as partnership agreements for same sex couples, help same sex couples separate financially when it is time, and families with all sort of general practice legal issues, like criminal offenses, personal injury cases, divorces and bankruptcy.

He also worked on cases in the early 2000s where men were arrested and had their vehicles impounded in the Rouge Park area of Detroit simply for flirting with other men, waving, or giving out their phone numbers to other men. The "annoying persons ordinance" fell to the wayside after attorneys like Rasor began suing the city, claiming they were targeting gays in the area who weren't breaking any laws.

To find out more about Rasor Law Firm, visit their website at http://www.rasorlawfirm.com/.

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