Lilburn, cop reach deal in racial lawsuit

LILBURN - The city of Lilburn has reached a confidential settlement with a former police officer who claimed he was passed over for a promotion because of his Puerto Rican heritage.

A settlement was reached last week, according to an attorney for former Sgt. Jorge Portalatin. Conditions of the agreement prohibit Portalatin or his lawyer, Joan Crumpler, of Nix, Graddock & Crumpler in Decatur, from discussing it.

"We are very pleased with the settlement," Crumpler said.

City Manager Tom Combiths could not be reached for comment about the settlement on Monday.

Portalatin filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December 2004 alleging the Lilburn Police 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 for a lieutenant position. He was clearly "better qualified than the selectee," who was not Hispanic, but he was not promoted, according to the EEOC investigation.

Portalatin also believed he was retaliated against for complaining about discrimination. He was suspended and then fired in 2005.

Initially Portalatin said he wanted his job back, but it is almost certain he will not return to work in Lilburn. He is working as an officer in the Clarkston Police Department, Crumpler said.

Two other EEOC complaints filed against the city of Lilburn and its police department are still unresolved.

The EEOC upheld a complaint by Lt. Rob Worley, a 13-year veteran of the department, who stated former Chief Ron Houck retaliated against him for supporting Portalatin. Worley said he was given a low performance evaluation and his job duties were changed because he testified on behalf of Portalatin when Portalatin's firing was appealed to the city merit board.

Crumpler, who also represents Worley, said they are waiting for a right to sue letter to be issued by the U.S. Department of Justice before pursuing a settlement or filing a lawsuit in that case.

Loxie Sanders, a Mexican man fired by the Lilburn Police Department when he flunked a required course at the police academy, also submitted a discrimination complaint shortly after Portalatin and Worley. Sanders said he failed the police academy because he had to miss a day of firearms training to care for a sick child.

Because he was never considered a full-time employee, the EEOC did not uphold his claim, Crumpler said. Sanders has since moved to the New Orleans area to seek work.

After the EEOC complaints were made last year, Houck, who had been Lilburn's police chief for 28 years, announced his retirement. City officials said the timing had nothing to do with the controversy over racial discrimination. Houck never commented publicly about his retirement or the EEOC complaints.