Judge rejects Kentucky’s bid to dismiss discrimination lawsuit over bridge contract
There is enough evidence to suggest state transportation officials “were motivated by discriminatory intent or purpose” when they sought to remove a Louisville company from a minority business program, a federal judge has ruled in allowing the lawsuit to continue.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- There is enough evidence to suggest Kentucky transportation officials “were motivated by discriminatory intent or purpose” when they sought to remove a Louisville company from a minority business program, a federal judge has ruled in allowing a lawsuit to continue.
For that and other reasons, U.S. District Judge David J. Hale refused to grant the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s request to dismiss the lawsuit filed in 2014 by Mathis & Sons, which also has accused the agency of trying to withhold a qualification needed for work on the Ohio River Bridges Project.
The company argued in court documents that “racial animus toward African Americans” was behind the state’s refusal to grant the certification.
The Transportation Cabinet claimed Mathis & Sons had not backed up its allegations and asked Hale to dismiss the case. But in a July 18 order, the judge noted “evidence of contemporaneous racial bias,” including a Federal Highway Administration investigation and a sworn statement by a former cabinet official who said he resigned from the Kentucky agency over its treatment of black business owners.
Hale dismissed some Mathis allegations, but not key federal discrimination claims against the Transportation Cabinet and the employees. He has sent the case to a settlement conference, ordering the sides to try and resolve the remaining differences; if not, the lawsuit would go to trial.
“It’s a shame that a government agency that exists to rectify discrimination engages in it, and here there was plainly ample evidence that the agency treated white female-owned businesses differently than African American female-owned businesses,” said Glenn Cohen, an attorney for Mathis.
The Transportation Cabinet did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. In the past, it typically has declined to comment on lawsuits in progress.
At issue in the case is a state-run program meant to help Kentucky meet diversity goals for transportation projects that receive federal funds – such as the $2.3 billion toll bridge project that added two Ohio River spans between Louisville and Clark County, Ind., last year.
Mathis says in court documents that Walsh Construction, which built the Kentucky-led downtown bridge, promised it work on the project as long as it kept its minority-owned status and added another certification. The contract would have paid Mathis $13,400 per month.
Walsh had chosen other contractors by the time Kentucky granted its approvals.
Before the bridges project, Mathis served as the associate construction manager on the KFC Yum! Center and worked on other projects in the area.
Reed Hampton, who was then the lead investigator in the Transportation Cabinet’s Office of Civil Rights and Small Business Development, said in a sworn statement that he recommended to a state committee that Mathis be given the additional certification for consulting work on the bridges project in 2013.
But without his knowledge and after he went on medical leave, Hampton said, other state workers urged the committee to reject the consulting certification and even remove Mathis from Kentucky’s list of so-called “disadvantaged business enterprise,” or DBE, companies.
“The recommendation they forwarded to the committee was drafted to appear as though it was mine when it was not,” Hampton said.
He later resigned from the Transportation Cabinet in frustration over what he claimed were the agency’s “discriminatory practices.” In his statement, Hampton said he documented instances in which black business owners were not treated fairly.
A subsequent investigation by the Federal Highway Administration found no “disparate impact” on black-owned companies during the DBE certification process. But the probe revealed that those firms were terminated from or left the program at a higher rate than white companies.
The Transportation Cabinet explained in a court filing last year that its inspectors had questions about the Mathis firm’s ownership in the summer of 2013 and needed more information before approving the certification.
It took 120 days for the state to issue the approvals – less than the 150 days required under federal regulations, according to court documents.