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Scotus to clarify city officials liability, using Massachusetts case

June 9, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to clarify when city lawmakers must be given immunity from being sued over their governmental actions.

The court said it will consider lifting a monetary award against two former Fall River, Mass., city officials for eliminating a city worker’s job after she complained about another worker’s alleged use of racial slurs.

Janet Scott-Harris became the Fall River city government’s first black administrator when hired in 1987 to head the health and human services department.

In 1990, she accused a longtime city employee of repeatedly using racial slurs. In March 1991, the employee agreed to accept a 60-day suspension without pay.

In February 1991, Scott-Harris was told her job would be eliminated as a cost-cutting measure. Other city employees’ jobs later were eliminated, but she was the only administrator laid off.

The City Council approved the elimination of Scott-Harris’ job. Meanwhile, the suspended city worker was reinstated 18 days early by then-Mayor Daniel Bogan, and a new job was created for her.

Scott-Harris sued the city, Bogan and then-City Council member Marilyn Roderick, who chaired the committee that voted to eliminate her job.

The lawsuit said Scott-Harris’ job was eliminated because of racial bias and in retaliation for exercising her free-speech right to complain about racial slurs.

A federal jury ruled in her favor on the free-speech issue. Scott-Harris was awarded $60,000 in punitive damages from Bogan and $15,000 from Roderick. She also was awarded $156,000 from Bogan, Roderick and the city to compensate for her financial losses.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the judgment against the city but upheld the verdict against Bogan and Roderick. The appeals court said Scott-Harris had not proved that most City Council members cut her job to punish her for her complaint about racial slurs.

In the appeal acted on today, lawyers for Bogan and Roderick said they should be given immunity because the decision to eliminate Scott-Harris’ job was a legislative act.

Lawyers for Scott-Harris said city officials’ actions that single out an individual for different treatment are not entitled to full immunity.

The case is Bogan vs. Scott-Harris, 96-1569.

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