By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – A former toll collector is entitled to a trial on claims that the Mackinac Bridge Authority wrongfully denied him a promotion because he’s African American, a federal appeals court has ruled.
However, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals refused to reinstate a claim that the authority discriminated based on race when it later fired Terrance Fuller for wrongfully collecting unemployment benefits.
The authority, whose members are appointed by the governor, sets policy and tolls for the bridge linking the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The Department of Transportation (MDOT) maintains and staffs the bridge.
The authority hired Fuller in 2004 as a temporary part-time employee. Afterwards, he applied three times for promotion to permanent positions, most recently in 2010, according to the court.
White supervisors chose white applicants for the openings but gave different reasons for their decisions.
The authority fired Fuller in 2011 after the state Unemployment Insurance Agency determined that he’d claimed unemployment benefits he wasn’t entitled to, the court said. He denied any intentional wrongdoing, saying he relied on a coworker’s advice that he didn’t need to report his income if he worked fewer than three days a week, according to court documents.
Fuller’s suit asserted that the authority fired him in retaliation for internal complaints he filed about his coworkers’ racial slurs, remarks about his skin color and racist comments, such as “What’s up, Mr. Skinny Black Man.”
His lawyer, Sandra Hanshaw Burink of Marquette, described it as a “rampant racial environment.”
A federal judge tossed out the case without trial.
But in a unanimous decision, the three-judge appeals panel reinstated Fuller’s failure-to-promote claim.
In an opinion by Judge Ronald Gilman, the court cited conflicting testimony and other evidence that the bridge authority’s rationales for denying Fuller a permanent position “have shifted” in ways that suggest those reasons weren’t truthful and were a pretext for illegal discrimination.
At the same time, the court said the authority offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory explanation for the termination.
Fuller offered insufficient evidence “to show that he was fired for any reason other than his unemployment benefits fraud,” it said.
Burink, his lawyer, said the case can go to trial on the failure-to-promote claim in which Fuller seeks lost earnings, emotional distress damages and attorney fees.
“It’s been a long haul,” she said. “I believe he got the short end of the sick. It was not just unfair but also unlawful.”
MDOT communications director Jeff Cranson said the department has no comment on the case, adding, “The court ruling speaks for itself.”
By ERIC FREEDMAN