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Howard Industries Faces Second Immigration Lawsuit

Tue, 10/11/2011 - 4:23am

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) -- A Mississippi company that pleaded guilty to conspiracy related to the nation's largest workplace raid on illegal immigrants is now facing a second lawsuit accusing it of discriminating against non-immigrants who applied for jobs.

In February, a discrimination lawsuit was filed in federal court against Howard Industries on behalf of four black women claims the company gave preferential treatment to Latino applicants and workers, many of whom were illegal immigrants from Mexico.

On Sept. 30, the same four women filed a civil rights complaint against the company, alleging they were not given jobs because of their race.

"We expect these two cases to be consolidated," J. Cliff Johnson II, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, tells the Hattiesburg American (http://bit.ly/rpLTU9).

Howard's attorney, Richard L. Yoder, said both complaints were "baseless and without any merit."

"(The new complaint) really is insignificant in that it is making the same allegations by the same plaintiffs," he said.

Immigration agents detained nearly 600 illegal immigrants at Howard Industries' electrical transformer plant in Laurel in 2008. It was the largest such raid in U.S. history. The company pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to violate immigration laws and was fined $2.5 million.

In both lawsuits, Veronica Cook, Ylounda Phelps, Charlyn Dozier and Seleatha McGee seek class-action certification of their claim that repeated job applications were denied due to discrimination.

In the first lawsuit, Dozier claims she applied for a job with Howard Industries every three to six months beginning in 2002, but wasn't offered a position until after the 2008 raid. The other plaintiffs make similar allegations.

The second lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop what it says is the illegal practice of discriminating against job applicants on the basis of national origin. Also, it asks for unspecified damages.

"We want Howard Industries to pay for the blatant discrimination it allowed to exist in this plant," said Lisa Ross, another of the women's attorneys.

The lawsuits claim Howard Industries not only knew it was hiring illegal immigrants, but instructed some on how to get false identities and concealed the fact that hundreds of employees were illegal immigrants.

In the days after the raid, hundreds of people lined up outside the plant to apply for jobs. Howard Industries makes dozens of products from electrical transformers to medical supplies. It had been considered one of Mississippi's most successful private companies.

Howard Industries has repeatedly denied knowing that illegal immigrants worked at the sprawling plant, and blamed the situation on its former personnel director, Jose Humberto Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was the only company executive charged in the case and pleaded guilty in 2009.

He was sentenced to six months house arrest and five years' probation for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. His fine was $4,000.

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