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Court reinstates bias suit against Texas college.

LUFKIN, Texas -- The Texas Court of Appeals has reinstated a suit accusing Angelina College of illegally discriminating against a 65-year-old white faculty member based on his age, race and sex.

Dr. Ronald Kokes offered enough evidence of a discriminatory motive to send the case to trial, the court unanimously ruled.

The two-year college, which has asked the court to rehear the case, claimed it had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for hiring a 35-year-old African American woman, Benetha Jackson, for the position of a psychology instructor.

The college also sought to toss out deposition testimony by the former director of its liberal arts division, who had recommended Jackson from the pool of finalists. The college contends that the ex-director, Dr. Larry Dickens, was mentally incompetent when he testified that race and age were factors in his recommendation.

According to the decision, Kokes and Jackson were among the applicants who responded to a job notice in 2000. The requirements included a master's degree, a preference for community-college teaching experience and "the ability to interact with a diverse student population."

Dickens, who supervised the psychology faculty and headed the liberal arts division, appointed the screening committee. The committee ranked Kokes the highest among four finalists.

Dickens' recommendation to President Larry Phillips and Dean Patricia McKenzie emphasized the importance of diversity and said Jackson would be "an excellent role model for many of our students."

After the president selected Jackson, Kokes filed a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and then sued in Angelina County District Court. The suit contended that he was the most qualified candidate.

His lawyer, Gordon Cooper II of Houston, said, "The intent of the employment law of Texas is to see that the right thing happens. The sword of justice is sharp on both sides, and it cuts both ways."

Defending its employment choice, Angelina cited Jackson's more extensive community-college teaching experience and her more recent overall teaching experience. It also said her references described her as an outstanding teacher, while Kokes' recommendations emphasized his administrative and research skills.

After the suit began, Dickens testified in a deposition that Jackson's race and age were both factors in his recommendation. About a month after the deposition, a guardian was appointed on the ground that Dickens couldn't care for his own health and financial affairs because of dementia.

As a result, the college won a district court order tossing out both the testimony and the suit. But the appeals court disagreed, finding "no indication Dickens did not understand the questions he was being asked. He framed responsive answers, and he clearly related his recollection of the events."

It said, "Dickens' testimony provides direct evidence race and age were motivating factors in Angelina's decision making, though the final decision was made by Phillips, and Dickens' recommendation was only one factor in that decision."

A lawyer for the college, Sherry Travers of Dallas, said she could not discuss the case or answer questions because it's still in litigation.
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Author:Freedman, Eric
Publication:Community College Week
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Oct 11, 2004
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