Judge sets opt-out deadline for discrimination lawsuit

LAUREL — A federal judge has set an opt-out deadline of Nov. 29 for those eligible for part of a proposed, $1.3-million class-action settlement alleging discriminatory hiring practices at Howard Industries, which was the target of the largest U.S. workplace raid on illegal immigrants.

The discrimination was filed by four black women who claimed the company gave preferential treatment to Latinos.

U.S. District Court records show Howard Industries will pay $1.3 million into a settlement fund to be paid to possibly as many as 5,000 non-Hispanic individuals who applied for jobs at the company between March 2003 and Aug. 28, 2008.

Also, within nine months after the settlement, the company will hire at least 70 of the individuals who had applied for jobs, according to court documents. Howard Industries, according to court records, entered the settlement without admitting any wrongdoing.

The Hattiesburg American reports U.S. District Court Judge Keith Starrett entered an order outlining the processes involved in distributing the settlement. A final fairness hearing is scheduled for Jan. 23.

The lawsuit claimed that one of the plaintiffs applied for a job at the Howard Industries electrical transformer plant in Laurel, Miss., every three to six months beginning in 2002, but wasn’t offered a position until after the 2008 raid. The other plaintiffs made similar allegations.

Immigration agents detained nearly 600 illegal immigrants during the raid at the sprawling plant. Most of them were deported, though a handful faced identity theft charges. The company was fined $2.5 million in February 2011 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to violate immigration laws.

The lawsuit claimed 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. Federal authorities made similar allegations against the company.

Howard Industries repeatedly denied knowing that illegal immigrants worked at the 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 December 2009. He was sentenced last March to six months house arrest and five years on probation for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. His fine was $4,000.

Howard Industries has said the illegal immigrants used fake papers to circumvent numerous identification checks the company uses. Prosecutors said the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants.

Some of the workers were given jobs even after the Social Security Administration told the company that their Social Security numbers were not valid, prosecutors said. The same allegation is made in the civil lawsuit.

Gonzalez admitted to similar allegations when he pleaded guilty.

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