When we began our lawsuit to defend one man’s stand on the principle of nondiscrimination, we had no idea how long it would take to prevail. In the course of seven-and-a-half years of litigation, we lost not only one of the judges who heard the case, we lost Dr. Stanley Dea himself—our brave and principled client.
Stan was a senior engineering manager supervising 250 employees for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), a public water utility. He was also the utility’s highest-ranking Asian-American employee. Stan refused to comply with the WSSC’s unwritten policy of preferring minorities and women over better-qualified white males. Recommending the promotion of the best-qualified individual (who happened to be a white male) in the face of the utility’s preference system had garnered Stan a reprimand from the utility’s general manager, by which the GM intended to send a “shockwave” through the Commission that his race and gender preference edicts were not to be ignored. Consequently, Stan knew that should he refuse to discriminate against white males in another selection process, his stand was likely to cost him dearly. And that is exactly what happened when Stan ignored pressure from the utility’s management to recommend a woman for an important promotion, and instead recommended the best qualified person for the position, who was a white male. For his steadfast and principled adherence to the merit system, Stan was demoted by being transferred to a dead-end, non-supervisory job.
Washington, D.C. attorney Doug Herbert and IJ filed Stan’s Title VII retaliation claim in federal court in 1993, and, after extensive discovery, he filed for summary judgment because the facts clearly showed that it was Stan’s good faith belief that he was opposing an unlawful practice that led to his demotion. After extended delays, the trial court denied the motion and a three-day trial ensued, at which Doug demolished the opposition’s defense. Another lengthy delay followed, ending only when U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasanow ruled in favor of WSSC by distorting the facts. Shortly after authorizing an appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Stan Dea succumbed to liver disease, optimistic to the end that his faith in equal treatment for all would be vindicated.
His estate agreed to continue the appeal, which Doug prosecuted with his usual thoroughness and zeal. After bizarre delays in finalizing the record, Doug filed a devastating brief on Stan’s behalf, followed by a masterful oral argument that left the opposing counsel reeling and our side confident of victory, despite the daunting burden of overcoming the trial judge’s factual findings. That was October 29, 1998. While the decision was pending, one of the three judges on the panel died, delaying the issuance of the decision.
Finally, on June 15 of this year, the Fourth Circuit ruled in Stanley Dea’s favor. In a 21-page decision the appellate court ripped apart Judge Chasanow’s decision, finding that her crucial factual determinations were clearly erroneous, so much so that it took the highly unusual step of declining to return the case to her for retrial, instead finding that the record allowed no other conclusion than that WSSC had unlawfully retaliated against Stan Dea. The court remanded the case for determination of damages only.
Nearly eight years after the complaint was filed, the perseverance of two fine men of principle was finally rewarded. Stan Dea’s courage and willingness to take a stand on principle, and Doug Herbert’s refusal to give up in the face of crushing disappointment and misfortune, have received from the Fourth Circuit the recognition they so richly deserve.