9th Circuit says seafood companies did not discriminate

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2001

SEATTLE (AP) -- A federal appeals court has upheld a judge's finding that two seafood companies did not discriminate against Filipino and Alaska Native salmon-cannery workers in Alaska.

The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may mark the end of the 27-year-old case, which prompted Congress to rewrite civil rights laws.

Ten workers filed the original lawsuit -- later made a class action -- in March 1974 against Seattle-based Wards Cove Packing Co. and Dole Food Co. The workers contended they were paid less than white counterparts, given lesser living quarters and meals, and generally were victims of race-based job discrimination.

Seattle attorney Abraham Arditi, representing the 2,000 workers who signed on to the lawsuit, said he had not yet decided whether to seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

''We're going to look very carefully at whether we have any options,'' he said.

But others involved in the case say such a challenge is unlikely, noting the nation's highest court ruled against the plaintiffs once before, in 1989.

''We don't have anything to celebrate with this decision,'' said Michael Woo, a board member for the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, a Seattle group that has supported the lawsuit since the beginning.

''I don't know whether we will go further with the legal action. We may be banging our heads against the wall.''

Douglas Fryer, representing Wards Cove, said the decision was not a surprise, in part because U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush had ruled for the company in 1999.

''I think as a practical matter it has now been resolved,'' Fryer said. ''It's an enormous relief.''

The appeals-court judges indicated they ''didn't like some of the evidence of race in the case and how race labels were used,'' he said, but ultimately concluded there was no discrimination that violated federal law.

The plaintiffs in the case, Atonio v. Wards Cove, said their treatment at the canneries violated Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination among other things. Minority workers testified that they were stuck in low-paying canning jobs without chance for advancement, that they were fed meals that rarely varied from fish stew, and that they sometimes had only two showers to share among 45 people.

The case has ricocheted through more than a half-dozen appeals with thousands of pages of arguments that have been studied by more than two dozen federal judges.

The companies have almost always prevailed.

In 1983, Quackenbush ruled that the companies did not willfully discriminate against non-whites.

Six years later, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that to prove discrimination, workers had to do more than show numerical imbalance among the races in different jobs. Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the claims ''bear an unsettling resemblance to aspects of a plantation economy.''

In the 1991 Civil Rights Act, Congress effectively reversed the court, restoring an easier-to-prove discrimination standard.

But in the negotiations over the legislation, the Senate accepted a provision by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, that barred its application to the Wards Cove case.

President Clinton and others pushed legislation to repeal the Wards Cove exemption, but it failed every time. In 1994, the Supreme Court declined to hear a court case with the same goal.

In the appeal addressed Wednesday by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, only a few issues remained regarding alleged unintentional discrimination and its impact on minority workers.

In their unanimous opinion, Judges Betty Fletcher, Cynthia Holcomb Hall and A. Wallace Tashima wrote that ''this last appeal turns on whether the district court's finding and conclusions on three narrow issues -- the final shreds left after the dismissal of much more meaningful claims -- were clearly erroneous. We conclude that they were not.''

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