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U.S. attorney investigates Boston Trial Court

Federal attorneys may examine claims of harassment, racial discrimination

Jule Pattison-Gordon
U.S. attorney investigates Boston Trial Court
Two sources say the U.S. attorney’s office is investigating the Suffolk County Trial Court. Employees allege race- and ethnicity-based discrimination and belittlement.

Under fire from widespread allegations of racial discrimination, the Suffolk County Trial Court is now under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to two sources with knowledge of the case.

The Trial Court came under scrutiny in February, after former Court Administrator Harry Spence suspended Suffolk County Register of Probate Felix D. Arroyo.Arroyo’s supporters say the move came in response to his efforts to hire more people of color and better accommodate the predominantly immigrant population the Suffolk Probate Court serves.

Since then, more court employees and others have spoken out against what many say is an environment of racial harassment and employment discrimination.

In June, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice sent a letter to the Trial Court, calling for action and detailing allegations that included mockery based on race or accented English speech, lack of investigation of reports of race-based incidents, and white supervisors subjecting minority employees to more menial work and disparately severe discipline.

“[There is a] toxic racially-charged hostile environment that fosters identity-based harassment,” Oren Sellstrom of the Lawyers’ Committee wrote in the June letter.

Data from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination seem to bear out the allegations of a troubled climate. Since 2012, the agency has received 72 complaints of discrimination against the Trial Court, according to H Harrison, assistant to the commissioner of MCAD. Of these, 32 cases remain open. The closed complaints ranged across allegations of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, nationality, age, disability and other aspects.

According to Sellstrom, women of color in the state’s Trial Court department are underrepresented both in supervisory positions and overall employment numbers: Approximately 6.7 percent of court officers employed in the state are women of color. Since 2011, the portion of managerial Security Department roles held by women of color has hovered around 4 percent. In 2016, the Lawyers’ Committee sued the Trial Court to compel it to publicly release such diversity data.

Commenting on the MCAD complaints tally, Sellstrom said the number is unusually high, yet not surprising given the employee accounts heard by the Lawyers’ Committee.

“We do believe the problem is systemic,” he said.

Trial Court response: Improved hiring

On July 25, Jonathan Williams, the new Trial Court administrator hired in March after Spence’s five-year term ended, replied to the Lawyers’ Committee with a letter in which he acknowledged awareness of the low levels of diversity and stated that there are ongoing efforts to remedy this. Williams highlighted attempts to improve diversity of applicants, push bias training and establish departmental committees focused on diversity and race and implicit bias within the organization. He also said that low representation of women is an issue for such law enforcement-type organizations nationwide.

For the Massachusetts Trial Court, disparities emerge in the initial applicant pool, Williams said: In 2015, 73 percent of entrance exam takers were male. Trial Court officials’ attempts to change this include a focus on increasing public advertisement of positions and targeted recruitment efforts. As the organization seeks to move out of the specter of past patronage hiring, strategies include promoting post-graduation employment opportunities to local law schools. During the past few years representatives of the Probate and Family Court have discussed job opportunities at a number of colleges, including Roxbury Community College. Other partnerships aim to support the entrance of students of color into the legal profession, including efforts to engage them in legal internships or promote law as a course of study.

Williams said that given that it takes years for officers to garner enough experience to be considered for high ranking jobs, and given the low availability of openings in the trial court, the impact of such new recruits will be felt gradually.

“Turnover is low in the Trial Court, so changes will be slow, but we can assess progress by looking at recent hiring,” Williams said.

He said there are positive signs in regard to racial representation: Of the 1,005 people who took the entrance exam in 2015, only 270, or 27 percent, were women — but of that female pool, 39 percent were of color.

Other in-progress initiatives include development of an “Elimination of Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace” policy as well as a procedure for receiving internal complaints. Various trainings on bias and harassment have been conducted, and implicit bias was a topic during educational conferences. In response to Sellstrom’s request for publicly available demographic data, Williams said they would publish an annual report to inform race and implicit bias discussions and increase public transparency.

Contested exam, requested investigation

The Lawyers’ Committee sought reassessment of a written exam used in evaluating candidates for promotion. The promotion qualification process entails an interview and exam, but there are concerns about the subjective nature of interviews, given a racially-hostile climate, and, in 2015, scores from the exam disqualified candidates of color at twice the rate of white candidates, according to the Lawyers’ Committee. As such, evidence is needed to prove the test is a necessary, job-relevant assessment method and no equally valid, less disparate alternative exists.

Williams stated to the Lawyers’ Committee that he could not comment on the exam except through legal counsel, given an ongoing lawsuit. However, a document he provided to the Lawyers’ Committee stated that the exam is seen as a way to remove subjectivity and prejudice from the promotional process.

“Our recent promotional exam was vetted carefully to ensure no bias,” the document states.

Williams also said there have been explorations of intentionally bringing greater diversity to the interview panels.

The Lawyers’ Committee also had requested an independent investigation of the Trial Court departmental culture, racial climate and hiring practices, to be conducted by an outside entity — something Sellstrom says is necessary given longtime systemic issues afflicting the institution. Williams said the lawsuit precluded him from speaking on this request at the moment.

Where the numbers stand

According to Trial Court data, currently 27 percent of all court officers are of color and 20 percent of court officers are female.

Meanwhile, of 123 hires made in the past year, 17 percent were female and 35 percent were women or men of color. Between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017, the Trial Court hired 123 people. Of this pool, 21 were specified in the data as female or not male. In regards to race, 19 hires were identified as black (male or female), 22 as Hispanic, one as Asian and one as Native American.

The U.S. attorney’s office would not confirm the existence or nonexistence of an investigation

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