Settlement forestalls trial of discrimination case

Sep. 17, 2013 @ 05:38 PM

A last-minute settlement on Tuesday averted a trial in a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the city filed by a former Durham Police Department sergeant.

Lawyers announced the deal in the Hope Allen case following a conference with Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan. They had been preparing for the start of what they thought would be four days of testimony and argument.

Morgan, a visiting judge from Wake County, praised the attorneys and “their respective clients for being sufficiently open-minded” to explore settlement possibilities.

Allen’s lawyer, Norman Smith, likewise praised the judge for giving the two sides “plenty of opportunity to consider” alternatives to going forward.

“He was very fair and very neutral in his approach,” Smith said.

Terms of the deal remained undisclosed as of Tuesday, but will be released after the two sides complete and sign the necessary paperwork. Senior Assistant City Attorney Kim Rehberg estimated that will take about two weeks.

She added that the terms are in line with settlement authority that elected officials had previously granted to the city attorney’s office.

By law, settlements of civil lawsuits involving a city are public record in North Carolina.

Allen sued over her dismissal by the Police Department in 2009.

Court documents suggested the firing was fallout from advice Allen gave officers under her command about how, in her words, to “get around” a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited the ability of police to search vehicles without a warrant.

City defense filings claimed Allen had “fail[ed] to properly carry out the responsibilities of her position.” But Allen and Smith said the reasons the city gave for her ouster were “false and pretextual.”

Before Tuesday’s conference, the Allen case was on track to become the first lawsuit against the city to reach trial since 2005.

That year, city officials in federal court fought and lost a whistleblower-rights case against Ava Hinton, an accountant in what was then its Department of Housing and Community Development.

Hinton alleged she was sacked for having tried to alert officials to problems with a small-business loan program and questionable conduct by the department’s then-director. The loan program wound up touching off a major scandal.

A jury decided Hinton’s reports were “a substantial and motivating factor” in her firing. It awarded her $1.6 million in damages. City officials tried to overturn the verdict, but eventually settled by paying Hinton nearly $390,000 and giving her a new job. She now works in Durham’s Solid Waste Management Department.

Allen’s case reached the top of the trial calendar as the Police Department has been under fire over a variety of unrelated issues.

They include the filing of an equal-opportunity complaint by an assistant chief, criticism of Police Chief Jose Lopez over a comment he allegedly made that disparaged a local defense attorney, and questions about two officer-involved shootings.