An Illinois federal judge has certified a class of African American laborers who claim that an industrial baker and the staffing firm it contracted with illegally denied them work, a ruling the workers' lawyers say is the first time that such a racial bias claim has been certified against a staffing agency.
In a nearly 70-page ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis granted a request by named plaintiffs James Zollicoffer and Norman Green to certify their class action accusing Gold Standard Baking Inc. and staffing firm Personnel Staffing Group LLC, which operates as Most Valuable Personnel, of violating a Reconstruction-era civil rights law by steering black workers away from GSB to please its client.
Judge Ellis said in part that issues concerning the entire class predominate over issues individual to class members, saying the defendants "fundamentally misunderstand the predominance inquiry."
"The predominance requirement demands that the proposed class is 'sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation.' Individual questions need not be absent," Judge Ellis said. "Here, defendants' list of individualized questions are actually secondary to plaintiffs' common claims."
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In Tuesday's ruling, Judge Ellis found that the workers cleared the legal bar for class certification under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
The judge said the class could number in the thousands, meeting Rule 23's numerosity requirement, and that they sufficiently showed the existence of an overarching discriminatory policy to satisfy the rule's commonality requirement.
"The fact that MVP utilized a decentralized decision-making process and MVP supervisors and dispatchers had a degree of autonomy to make referral decisions does not preclude plaintiffs' claim because they challenge defendants' overarching policy against hiring African Americans," Judge Ellis said.
"In short, the statistical evidence and anecdotes together provide 'significant proof' of a 'uniform employment practice' that caused a common injury to the class," the judge added.
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Representatives for the workers said the ruling is the first time that claims alleging systematic racial discrimination in the staffing agency industry have led to class certification.
"As our case makes clear, Gold Standard Baking sought to systematically discriminate against African American workers by directing the staffing agency MVP Staffing to send them only Hispanic workers," said class counsel Joseph Sellers of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. "This is the first time this kind of claim against a staffing agency has been certified as a class. Many of our nation's hardest-working laborers do not have the means to combat discriminatory hiring and job placement practices, so this first-of-its-kind ruling is tremendously important in the ongoing effort to hold these companies accountable."
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