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Judge nixes Newport News Industrial’s bid for 22 separate jury trials in race discrimination case

NEWPORT NEWS — A federal judge has rejected a request by a Newport News Shipbuilding subsidiary for 22 separate jury trials in a pending racial discrimination case against the company.

In a motion earlier this year asking for nearly two dozen trials, Newport News Industrial contended that the “hodgepodge” of claims brought by the suing workers should not be combined into one trial.

But U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen disagreed, saying 22 separate trials would require numerous witnesses — plaintiffs, company officials and others — ″to testify repeatedly.”

Lots of evidence — such as on the company’s human resource and training policies, and company practices about worker complaints — would have to be introduced at every trial, with “extensive overlapping testimony."

“Moreover, twenty-two separate juries would have to be empaneled,” Wright Allen wrote. “Severance in this case is the antithesis of judicial economy.”

Though the combined case will be “difficult and complex,” Wright Allen said, that can be alleviated in various ways at trial. “The alternative — 22 lengthy, complex trials — is unworkable and unreasonable,” the judge wrote.

Newport News Industrial, often referred to as “NNI,” is on Enterprise Drive, near Fort Eustis. The company provides a range of work for nuclear power plants in the electrical generation industry, including on tanks, piping and pressure systems.

Initially filed by eight black workers more than five years ago, the lawsuit contends that NNI subjected them to a hostile work environment and denied them promotions and pay increases on account of their race.

The complaint says white employees were coddled and allowed to take long breaks, while black employees were mocked and laughed at — including with racial epithets and racist symbols — and ordered to do the plant’s most difficult and dirtiest work.

The number of plaintiffs spiked to 37 in an amended complaint, but Wright Allen dismissed some of those workers, bringing the tally to 22. The sides failed to strike a deal at a settlement conference in June, and a trial date is expected to be selected soon.

In asking for separate trials, Newport News Industrial contended that the suing workers worked in a variety of jobs, at different times, in different facilities and under different supervisors.

The company asserted that there was no discriminatory company policy or practice, and no “common bad actor” involved. As such, the company said, the workers had “distinct experiences” that should be sorted out in separate jury trials.

But the suing workers’ attorneys, with the firm of Friedman & Houlding in New York, said the discrimination “saturated the entire environment" and the cases should remain combined. They said the discriminatory treatment mostly involved the same supervisors and took place largely at the Enterprise Drive site.

In siding with the plaintiffs, Wright Allen ruled that that the there are “common questions of law or fact" that justifies keeping the cases together. For example, she wrote, 20 of the 22 plaintiffs were welders, most of whom said they were harassed by the same foreman and witnessed similar racist symbols.

“NNI’s attempts to separate Plaintiffs who saw racist graffiti from those who saw racist clothing from those who were called racial epithets are unpersuasive,” Wright Allen wrote. “The incidents need not be identical in every respect, but merely logically related."