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Officer's racial bias claim affirmed

LILBURN - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled in favor of a fired Lilburn police officer, finding he was subjected to racial discrimination and retaliation against him for speaking out about it.

Now former Sgt. Jorge Portalatin wants to get his job back, but it was unclear Wednesday whether city officials would consider reinstating him.

Portalatin, who is Puerto Rican, filed a complaint in December alleging the department had become a hostile work environment because of his race. Although Lilburn has a large Hispanic community, Portalatin was the only Hispanic officer in the department, the federal agency's investigation revealed.

When it came time for promotions, Portalatin was one of three applicants gunning for a lieutenant position. Portalatin was clearly "better qualified than the selectee," who was not Hispanic, but he was not promoted, according to the determination made by the EEOC on Sept. 30.

Lilburn officials violated federal law by passing over Portalatin because of his national origin and retaliating against him for complaining about discrimination, the ruling said.

The EEOC also found the harassment continued after Portalatin's initial complaint was filed.

Portalatin received a written reprimand on Feb. 5 for an incident that occurred Oct. 10, 2004, at RBC Centura Bank. He already had received a written reprimand because bank employees complained he was gruff while responding to a burglary alarm.

Portalatin was exonerated of the accusation by a supervisor, but Chief Ron Houck issued him a written reprimand. Portalatin filed a second EEOC charge of discrimination in February. He was subsequently suspended and fired on March 9.

"It feels good that an independent source that diligently looked into these allegations for 10 months has agreed with me," said Portalatin, who along with his wife discussed the ruling Wednesday at his attorney's office in Decatur.

Officer Tyler Thomas, spokesman for Lilburn police, said he could not comment about the ruling because it is a personnel issue with the possibility of pending litigation.

The EEOC is still investigating two other employee complaints against the Lilburn Police Department. Another Hispanic former officer, Loxie Sanders, alleged racial discrimination and harassment when he was fired for missing a day of firearms instruction at the training academy. A department supervisor, Lt. Rob Worley, claims he received a negative performance review in retaliation for supporting Portalatin.

Firing unfair, agency rules

Scott Batterton, the city's former mayor and current councilman who also chairs the police committee, backed the council's decision to fire Portalatin.

"I am disappointed that the EEOC found for Mr. Portalatin, because I feel like we acted in good faith and we acted with the best information that we had," Batterton said.

Batterton said he was unsure if the city would rehire Portalatin. The Lilburn Police Department has no Hispanic employees. There are three black police officers and two black communications officers.

In seeking Portalatin's termination, Houck went before the City Council in April with 19 documented complaints against Portalatin. The complaints were filed by people or fellow officers who said Portalatin used obscenities or made rude remarks toward them. Most of the complaints were determined to be unfounded, according to personnel records obtained by the Gwinnett Daily Post through the Open Records Act.

Last month, Houck, Lilburn's police chief of 28 years, announced his intention to retire effective Jan. 3. The timing had nothing to do with the Portalatin case, city officials said.

The punishment meted out to Portalatin was unfair compared to disciplinary measures taken against other Lilburn police officers, according to the EEOC.

There were "numerous examples of non-Hispanics who committed similar offenses but were either not disciplined or they received a verbal or written warning," the agency's ruling said.

'Black cloud' may be lifting

The EEOC's next step is to contact both parties to attempt mediating a solution. If that effort fails, the agency will issue Portalatin a right-to-sue letter allowing him to file a civil action in federal court, said one of his three attorneys, Jamie Miller.

Portalatin says he wants his job back because it is the right thing for the city to do.

"I have the desire to go back," Portalatin said. "There are too many people in the community that I care for and that care for me."

Hired as an officer in 1999, Portalatin consistently received performance reviews that said he was meeting or exceeding expectations. He volunteered at several local churches' gang and drug prevention programs, and participated in a Latino radio show to promote good relations between the department and the Hispanic community.

Since being fired, he has been working part time as a security guard in a grocery store. Portalatin applied to at least seven other police departments, but the firing from Lilburn tainted his record, said his attorney Joan Crumpler.

"He has attempted to get other law enforcement jobs, but this is a black cloud on his record," Crumpler said.

The part-time work schedule and lack of benefits as a security guard has put an "extreme financial hardship" on Portalatin's wife and 6-year-old son, said his wife, LeKisseh.

"This has just completely ruined us financially," LeKisseh Portalatin said. "The stress has just been awful."

Portalatin and his attorneys declined to say whether they will pursue a settlement for lost wages and benefits.