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Kodak to pay $21.4M to settle discrimination claims

Eastman Kodak Co. will pay nearly $21.4 million to settle a nationwide class action lawsuit brought by more than 3,000 former employees who alleged the company engaged in “an ongoing pattern of discrimination against its African American employees,” court papers state.

The company admits no liability as part of the settlement terms, which awards $50,000 to each of 12 named plaintiffs, reduced from the April 2009 agreement, which included individual awards of $75,000. The change did not affect the settlement total; the difference is being awarded to other class members.

Attorneys’ fees will be determined separately, although the $21.4 million total includes a gross amount of $9.7 million for plaintiffs’ counsel and reimbursement of their expenses.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Feldman’s decision was handed down Friday, and also denies as moot a protective order motion previously brought by the plaintiffs.

The years-long litigation began in November 2003, when plaintiff Courtney Davis filed her initial lawsuit against Kodak in the Northern District of California. The case was transferred to the Western District of New York in March 2004.

“One need only look at the Court’s docket to substantiate the determination of all parties to aggressively litigate this case on the merits,” Judge Feldman’s decision states.

The parties reached agreement on the terms of a complete settlement in April 2009. Crowded final fairness hearings were held in October and November. In many instances, courtroom observers and class members who wished to testify were turned away due to lack of seating. Judge Feldman’s decision notes that of the more than 60 individuals addressed the court regarding the settlement terms, most were excluded from participating in the proposed monetary benefits of the settlement because their dates of employment fell outside of the defined settlement class. The Employees Committed for Justice — an organization of past and current African American employees of Kodak — will receive $458,000 of the settlement total.

The eligible class covered African American employees who worked at Kodak between Jan. 1, 1999 and May 18, 2006.

Judge Feldman’s 59-page decision in part acknowledges the strain the ongoing litigation has had on both the company’s current employees and the community at large.

“[T]here can be no dispute that the relationship between Kodak and many of its African-American employees has resulted in workplace tension, distrust and animosity,” the decision states. “The hard fact is that many former African-American employees of Kodak who believe they too were subjected to race based discrimination in pay, promotions and workplace hostility will not share in the economic benefits of the … settlement” because their time of employment fell outside of the settlement class.

“This hard fact has not only spread further distrust towards Kodak, but has also spread distrust and hostility towards the named plaintiffs and class counsel,” the decision states.

The plaintiffs alleged Kodak discriminated against African American employees in compensation, promotions, wage classifications and job assignments, engaged in harassment and created a hostile work environment and retaliated against certain employees.

Kodak vigorously contested the allegations throughout the litigation.

In addition to monetary awards, the settlement also spells out equitable relief to be provided over a four year term, including Kodak’s enforcement of non-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies and retention of an industrial psychologist to assist in the review, enhancement and development of policies to reinforce Kodak’s equal opportunity employment practices.

Kodak also agreed to develop a database to track all complaints of discrimination and the resolution or status of those complaints.

David Lanzillo, Kodak’s director of corporate communications, in an e-mail Friday wrote that the company is “pleased that this matter has been resolved.”

He emphasized that the “settlement represents a resolution of mutual interest” and “absolutely does not suggest any wrongdoing on the part of Kodak.”

“We look forward to focusing our efforts on continuing to strengthen our operating performance, and will continue to foster a workplace marked by fairness, dignity and respect,” Lanzillo wrote.

The cases are Courtney Davis, et. al. v. Eastman Kodak Co., 04-CV-6098Fe (WDNY Sept. 3), and Gladys Alston, et. al. v. Eastman Kodak Co., 07-CV-6512L (WDNY Sept. 3).

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