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Two sue Ryland, charge bias


Two black former sales representatives have filed federal civil rights lawsuits against the Ryland Group Inc., charging that the nation's third-largest homebuilder discriminated against them in its hiring and assignment practices.

The two lawsuits allege that the former employees were held to different standards than the company's white personnel also selling new homes in Howard and Baltimore counties.

O'Dell Lewis, 50, and Joan Thompson-Hill, 34, both of Woodlawn, are asking for an unspecified amount of money and sweeping changes by Ryland in its hiring and treatment of black employees, according to the lawsuits filed June 5 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

A Ryland spokeswoman declined to comment yesterday on the specifics of either case because the company had not seen the lawsuits.

But she denied that race has anything to do with Ryland hiring decisions.

"Our organizational and personnel decisions are based solely on performance -- both the performance of the individual and the performance of the company," said Anne Madison, vice president for communications.

The lawsuits charge that Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Thompson-Hill -- and other black sales representatives working for Ryland -- received discriminatory treatment from the Columbia company compared with white employees.

Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Thompson-Hill left Ryland in October after they were notified they had fallen behind their sales quotas and would be fired at the end of the month.

They claim that the company unfairly singled them out for poor sales performances while white sales representatives with worse records in the 35-person Baltimore region were not fired.

"The bottom line is that Ryland Homes does not treat its minority employees fairly -- without a doubt," Mr. Lewis said yesterday in an interview.

He claims that from the time he began selling homes for Ryland in 1993, the company assigned him to its lower-priced developments in Randallstown "that primarily attracted black customers."

Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Thompson-Hill charge that black sales agents routinely are assigned to such developments, although she acknowledged that her last assignment was an exception to this alleged pattern.

They say Ryland's general hiring practices also are unfair because the company has hired only a handful of blacks for its sales staff and management in the Baltimore area.

Besides seeking unspecified monetary damages for lost wages and other losses related to their firings, Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Thompson-Hill asked the court to order Ryland "to institute and carry out policies, practices and programs which provide equal employment opportunities for African Americans and which eradicate the effects of its past and present unlawful employment practices."

Although the texts of the two lawsuits are almost identical and both were filed by the same attorney, there are no immediate plans to combine the cases or try to create a class-action lawsuit.

"We're going to keep the cases separate," said John London Clark Jr. of Columbia, attorney for both former Ryland employees. "It is better to deal with each person's case individually and let the juries decide each person's case on their own."

The two discrimination complaints initially were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last fall.

They were investigated by the Howard County Office of Human Rights under a work-sharing agreement between the two agencies.

The Howard human rights office's investigation delved into the company's treatment of the two employees and its treatment of minority employees throughout Ryland's Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Maryland and three other states.

However, because the Howard County office has a backlog of cases and was unable to complete its investigation within 180 days of the date the complaints were filed, the two former employees requested that the EEOC grant them "right to sue" letters permitting them to take the cases directly to federal court, Mr. Clark said.

The letters were granted last month.

Neither case has a date set for an initial court hearing.

Ryland officials have until the end of the month to file a written response.

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