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Court official to settle bias suit

In what he calls a "good business decision, " Broward Clerk of Courts Robert E. Lockwood has agreed to pay more than $1.3 million in tax money to black employees who accuse him of racism.

The 76-year-old clerk is looking to end a four-year battle with 29 black clerks who say he and his lieutenants have systematically denied them promotions, disciplined them more severely than their white counterparts and repeatedly used racial slurs aimed at blacks.

Lockwood is accused of referring to the clerk's office as his "private plantation."

The popular Democrat has persistently denied the allegations, saying he has done more than any of his predecessors to provide access to minorities.

"This is purely an economic decision, " said Lockwood, at home Monday recovering from the flu. "My lawyers tell me it would have cost more than a million dollars to defend this case, whichever way it goes.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed, " he said. "My inclination was to fight this all the way. But this was the right decision. It will save the taxpayers money in the long run."

Vote coming up

The Broward County Commission, which must approve all such settlements, is set to take up the issue April 14.

Aside from the money, the negotiated settlement would result in one promotion of a black clerk to supervisor, and the lead plaintiff -- polio-stricken clerk Beverly Smith -- has agreed to resign in exchange for a much larger part of the settlement.

"It's time for it to end, " Smith, 42, said Monday. "And this is a good way to end it. I have no desire to go back there. I'd feel more like a target."

The NAACP, which has backed the black employees from the start, also supports the settlement.

In a letter addressed today to County Commission Chairwoman Lori Parrish, Fort Lauderdale NAACP President Roosevelt Walters said he is "satisfied with the efforts that the Clerk's office has recently made to promote African Americans."

Lockwood's stance

In a five-page letter to County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, Lockwood -- once described by his wife as an excellent chess player -- asked county commissioners to pay most of the settlement and laid out his reasons for forfeiting the game.

He said preparation and costs for a two- or three-month trial could exceed $975,000 and the 100 estimated depositions would make for a "tremendous amount of lost staff hours." Lockwood's lawyers also worry that U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger will refuse to separate the cases and let one jury decide all 29 individual claims.

"The jury could conceivably draw the inference -- even though it should not -- that the sheer number of plaintiffs implies that discrimination must have occurred, " Lockwood explained.

Should Lockwood's office lose at trial, damages could exceed $8.7 million, not including attorneys fees, lawyers agreed.

What's proposed

The settlement calls for payouts of $1,175,000 in the case against the clerk's office and another $150,000 (already paid) in the cases against Lockwood and his seven supervisors sued as individuals.

Lockwood has agreed to pay $280,000 from his own budgets over the next two years, but asks county commissioners to approve an additional $995,000 to cover the balance.

Of the total, attorneys said the 29 plaintiffs -- 20 of whom are still employed by Lockwood -- will divide $545,000. Most will receive $10,000, said Brian Nieman, who helped represent the black employees. Several -- including Smith -- are to receive substantially larger amounts.

Lockwood's attorney, John Gronda, said his client made a politically difficult but correct decision.

"I think Bob did the courageous thing here, " Gronda said. "He could have taken the bull's-eye off his back if he just said no and fought it. He knows what he did is not necessarily the politically correct thing to do. I think he deserves a lot of credit."