The case of a former Tennessee Department of Labor official who says he was the victim of reverse discrimination will move forward. However, he will not be able to seek money damages from the state, a federal judge has ruled.
Donald B. Ingram, formerly the head of the labor department’s Division of Employment Security, is suing the state and the African American former labor commissioner, Karla Davis, alleging that she conspired with others to have Ingram, who is white, removed in favor of a less-qualified African American woman. That woman, Alisa Malone, has since resigned along with Davis and another man Ingram says was involved in the effort.
The state asked U.S. District Judge John T. Nixon to dismiss the case because neither the state nor Davis are legally obligated to pay the more than $500,000 in damages Ingram is seeking, and because Davis enjoys two types of legal immunity.
While Nixon agreed in a May 10 opinion that Ingram can’t collect from the state or Davis as a state official, he repeatedly made clear that Ingram presented enough facts to move against Davis individually.
“Whether or not the facts as they emerge will corroborate Ingram’s allegations, the Court finds Ingram has pleaded sufficient allegations of willful or malicious conduct by Davis to withstand Defendants’ absolute immunity defense at the motion to dismiss stage,” Nixon wrote.
Nixon also declined to go along with defense arguments that Ingram failed to exhaust administrative actions to contest his removal and that he lacks legal standing to bring a lawsuit.
Lawyers representing both Ingram and Davis did not return multiple requests for comment.
A telephone conference for lawyers to discuss the case’s future with Magistrate Judge Juliet Griffin is scheduled for May 29.
Ingram was fired June 4, 2012, according to a letter from Davis that Ingram attached to his court complaint. In the suit, which the state had moved from Chancery Court to federal court last October, Ingram said that Davis refused him the option of retiring, campaigned to undermine his authority and violated Tennessee law because she fired him out of animus, not nonperformance of duties.
In the letter, Davis cites financial mismanagement, including a budget deficit, as the reason Ingram was removed.
“It is imperative, particularly in the current economic climate, that this ‘ Department be good stewards of our federal and state funds and I do not find that to be the case within the ES Division under your leadership,” the letter stated.
Ingram’s complaint said his 27-year career with the labor department was well regarded, and he helped to bring in more than $140 million in federal money for Tennessee unemployment insurance. He also said other white employees were let go in favor of black replacements.
A Tennessee Comptroller’s report released in April criticized management of the state’s unemployment program.
Although the case isn’t set to go to trial until April 2014, and a majority of racial-discrimination cases are settled without a trial, the odds of Ingram’s case reaching a jury trial increased, said Michael Foreman, director of the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic at Penn State University.
“The fact that this individual did not get their case thrown out leads me to believe there is some significant evidence from which the judge looked at it and said, ‘Hey, a reasonable jury could conclude, based upon this, that race was a factor,’” he said.