A federal judge has dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by two African-American men who alleged a pattern of racial discrimination at the Kansas City Power & Light District.
Senior Judge Ortrie Smith this week threw out the second count of the two-count lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Dante A.R. Combs and Adam S. Williams. The other count was dismissed earlier.
Combs, of Overland Park, and Williams, of Kansas City, claimed they were victims of discrimination while visiting the district in 2010 and 2011 — Combs on three occasions and Williams once.
Smith, in his order filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, threw out the case on both a legal technicality and because he found no direct evidence to support their claims against Power & Light owner Cordish Companies and its affiliates.
The Kansas City allegations recently became a matter of discussion in Philadelphia, where minority leaders are considering whether to oppose a casino that Cordish plans to build.
Cordish spokesman Nick Benjamin said the company was pleased with the judge’s ruling. Linda Dickens, the attorney representing Combs and Williams, said she will ask the judge to reconsider and intends to appeal to a higher court if he refuses.
“This dismissal does not detract,” Dickens said, “from the powerful testimony by multiple Power & Light ex-employees who describe under oath when and how they were told to keep blacks out of Power & Light.”
Her clients’ case is based partly on testimony from former district employees who, in sworn depositions, testified that managers urged them to limit the number of black patrons in the downtown entertainment area’s bars and restaurants.
Among the supposed tactics was enforcement of a dress code allegedly aimed at excluding African-American men. City officials also found fault with enforcement of the dress code several years ago, but ultimately settled with the company. The city human relations director said there have been no complaints in recent years.
Another alleged ruse, the federal suit contended, was to make up excuses for why black patrons were denied entrance to clubs, such as claims that the establishments were overbooked or that the customer’s reservation had been lost.
Combs alleged that he was the victim of both tactics. But the central allegation by both men was that Cordish and its affiliates employed so-called “rabbits”: white men hired to start arguments with black men so that district security could intervene and order the latter to leave, while the white guy would go on to start more trouble with others.
Both plaintiffs claimed to have been victims of the tactic. Combs claimed it happened to him outside a club in the area when a white man bumped into him and caused him to drop his cellphone. Williams contended that while he was inside the Maker’s Mark bar and restaurant, a white man confronted him after Williams allegedly stared at the man’s girlfriend.
Smith said that the men’s attorney failed to prove that a rabbit was involved in either altercation. The man who scuffled with Williams testified that he worked for the city of Olathe and was not employed as a rabbit.
At best, Smith wrote, Dickens introduced evidence that a rabbit was allegedly used to pick fights at another club in the district, the Mosaic Lounge. But there were no allegations about the use of rabbits at Mosaic in the federal lawsuit.
Dickens also represents a former Mosaic manager, Glen Cusimano, in a Jackson County lawsuit. Cusimano alleges that while working at Mosaic, his supervisor instructed him to hire a rabbit to help reduce the number of African Americans in the club.
Cordish has previously denied it had anything to do with the practice and fired Cusimano, an African American, for other reasons.
His case is scheduled for trial on Nov. 30. Jury selection in the federal case had been set to begin next month.
The lawsuits’ allegations of past racial bias at Cordish’s Kansas City operations have recently become an issue in Philadelphia, where Cordish wants to build a $475 million hotel and casino complex on the city’s south side.
Last week, the NAACP chapter there was on the verge of opposing the project by condemning the company’s practice at a news conference and issuing a 21-page report titled “Unwelcome: History of Allegations of Racial Discrimination By the Cordish Cos.”
Much of the report was based on allegations contained within the two Kansas City lawsuits, as well as other complaints filed against Cordish for allegedly discriminatory practices in Kansas City and Louisville, Ky.
Dickens flew in to attend the Thursday morning event. But as news media began to gather for the event at Philadelphia City Hall, the press briefing “unraveled,” as The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, when NAACP chapter president Rodney Muhammad didn’t show up.
Muhammad later told The Inquirer that he decided to skip the event after getting calls from Mayor Michael Nutter and the national NAACP, whom Nutter had also contacted.
Nutter denied trying to kill release of the report in advance of city approvals for the project, but rather asked to discuss the situation with the local NAACP president before he went ahead.
According to the newspaper, Muhammad said he hadn’t realized that the report, authored by a New York-based public policy firm, was commissioned by a labor union that represents hotel and casino properties.
Jason Ortiz, the managing director of that firm, Metropolitan Public Strategies, declined The Star’s request for comment.
Some Philadelphia leaders speculated that by highlighting the allegations, the union, Unite Here, was seeking an advantage in representing future casino workers.
A source with close ties to Unite Here told The Star that the real intent was to torpedo the Cordish casino, because building it will mean demolishing a Holiday Inn on the site that now employs 70 union workers.
But Dickens said it was more complicated than that, now that she reflects back on her initial discussion with Ortiz a month ago when he called to ask about the lawsuits she had filed.
“He said at that time he was doing some background for two labor unions, and said a hotel is going to be demolished in order to make room for a new hotel that Cordish would be putting up,” Dickens said.
She said Ortiz told her that a union had offered Cordish a deal: “We won’t oppose your project if you agree to be a union shop and Cordish said no.”
A source within the company told The Star that Cordish fully expects that the casino’s thousands of new employees will be represented by a union. But one part of Dickens’ account rang true, he said. Unite Here had offered labor peace in each exchange for a leg up over other unions in representing the workforce, and Cordish refused.
Again, Ortiz declined to address the issue and a spokesman for the Unite Here local representing hotel and food service workers in Philadelphia did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.