City Lost by Not Settling Suit by Firefighter; City Offered $10,000; Jury Awarded Plaintiff $1 Million

February 12, 2003

BYLINE: R. Robin McDonald

Attorneys for Atlanta’s first female firefighter said they would have settled her sex discrimination suit against the city for considerably less than the $1 million verdict she received. But they said the city attorney was too busy to return their calls. A jury last week awarded Atlanta Fire Lt. Liz R. Summers $1 million-$250,000 more than lawyers requested.

Now, armed with that verdict, Summers, 55, is returning to court to seek the promotion she was denied two years ago, her attorneys said this week. Summers v. City of Atlanta, No. 1:01-cv-522 (N.D. Ga. Feb. 6, 2003).

City Attorney Linda K. DiSantis said this week the city will appeal.

A. Leroy Lee Parks Jr., a partner at Parks, Chesin & Walbert, and associate Alysa B. Freeman said this week that Summers is seeking promotion either to section chief in charge of investigations or section chief in charge of inspections. Two years ago, Summers outscored all fellow firefighters for the inspections post and tied with one other firefighter as the top candidate for the investigations post, Parks said.

About 18 candidates, including Summers, were evaluated for a dozen open posts in 2000 by a committee appointed by Fire Chief Winston Minor. The committee was the outgrowth of a reverse discrimination suit filed by nine white fire captains in 1998, Parks said.

That case eventually settled out of court, said Parks, who also represented the white captains. As a result of the litigation, the city law department developed an objective evaluation process.

Parks said that Summers was the only candidate recommended by the committee for the inspections post but the chief elected to promote someone else.

City attorneys, he said, had argued that Minor’s promotions were discretionary. They were trying to avoid the idea that the chief had to pick the best qualified candidate. Instead, city attorneys insisted that Minor could pick the people he was most comfortable with.

Parks and Freeman said they both attempted numerous times to contact City Attorney Linda K. DiSantis, but she didn’t return their calls. Parks said Assistant City Attorney Kimberly Patrick, the lead city attorney on the case, sent him a letter that said, DiSantis doesn’t have time to meet with you.

Parks said that the city’s only settlement offer was for $10,000 and a post as assistant chief in charge of education.

On Tuesday, Patrick referred all calls to DiSantis, who had inherited the case from her predecessor, Susan Pease Langford.

DiSantis said her staff attorneys had many conversations with Parks about a settlement up to the eve of trial. We never came to an agreement.

DiSantis said she wasn’t too busy to talk, but there was nothing else for us to talk about.

A jury awarded Summers $1,010,422-$500,000 in punitive damages, $500,000 in compensatory damages, and $10,422 in unrealized back pay. The jury specified that the punitive damages may be awarded only against Chief Minor. They may not [jury’s emphasis] be awarded against the City of Atlanta.

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