Department of Justice Sides With Natives, Files Lawsuit Against SD for Discrimination

Sarah Sunshine Manning

On Tuesday, November 3, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against South Dakota’s Department of Social Services (DSS), alleging racial discrimination against Native American job applicants. Prompted by the complaint of a Native American man, Cedric Goodman, this lawsuit shines light on the lingering phenomena of institutional racism in the state of South Dakota.

According to the lawsuit, State of South Dakota’s DSS Pine Ridge Reservation Office repeatedly discriminated against Native American job applicants because of their race, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition to passing over numerous applications of Native Americans, the lawsuit alleges that the DSS Pine Ridge Office closed several positions, reopened them, and ultimately hired non-Natives with lesser qualifications to work in the Pine Ridge Office.

The complaint that prompted the lawsuit goes back to 2010, when Cedric Goodman, as well as many other qualified Native Americans, applied for an Employment Specialist position at the Pine Ridge Office. The position sought out applicants with a bachelor’s degree, similar work experience, and cultural competency working with Native Americans.

Not only did Goodman have a bachelor’s degree in Human Services and Business Administration, but he also had 30 credit hours toward a Master’s Degree. Still, his application was completely passed over, according to the lawsuit, as well as many other Native American applicants.

In addition to his educational background, Goodman had five years of experience as a social worker, three and a half years as a supervisory social worker with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and four years as an employment specialist with the South Dakota Job Seeker Services under the Department of Labor and Regulation.

Goodman’s education, work experience, and Native American background, seemingly, should have qualified him as a prime candidate for the social service position, and in particular, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, considering the unique social challenges that Native Americans face.

Still, the position went unfilled, and was closed on December 12, 2010. According to the lawsuit, the very next day, on December 13, 2010, DSS reopened the position and ultimately selected a white applicant with inferior qualifications, and no similar work experience. The Pine Ridge DSS office hired a white woman, who was a recent 2010 college graduate. The lawsuit says that she had “limited work experience mostly centered in a retail and office environment.”

Moreover, the applicant selected not only lacked comparable social service experience in comparison to Goodman, but as a non-Native, she also lacked in comparable competency working with the unique challenges of Native American communities.

But Goodman’s case was only one of many cited in the lawsuit. In failing to select a number of well-qualified Native American applicants for several positions in DSS’s Pine Ridge Reservation Office, the lawsuit alleges that the state agency engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination and violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Over a two-year period beginning in 2010, DSS posted a total of 18 Specialist vacancies for its Pine Ridge Reservation Office. For those 18 positions, 40 percent of the applications came from Native Americans, yet DSS hired 11 Whites and only one Native American, making up only nine percent of employees hired. The remaining six of the other job openings were removed completely.

Additionally, concerns of inequitable salaries of Native American employees are also cited in the lawsuit. The lawsuit states, “that DSS has a policy of hiring white applicants in the higher-paying specialist position, such as Employment Specialist, while only hiring Native-American applicants for lower paying positions.”

Several outcomes are being pursued by the lawsuit, including requiring the South Dakota DSS to hire Goodman “in the next available Employment Specialist position at DSS’s Pine Ridge Office.” If successful, Goodman “and other similarly situated Native American applicants” could receive back pay and “all other appropriate monetary relief … for the loss they suffered as a result of the discriminatory conduct.” Further, Goodman and others discriminated against may receive “compensatory damages … for mental and/or physical injuries caused by the DSS’s discriminatory conduct.”

The lawsuit also seeks to prevent the South Dakota DSS from engaging in further discrimination against Native Americans, and prompts the department “to institute policies, practices, and procedures to ensure a nondiscriminatory workplace.”

The South Dakota Department of Social Services stated that they are unable to comment on pending litigation at this time.

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Vanita Gupta, of the Civil Rights Division, said that, “Federal law provides all Americans with equal opportunity to compete for jobs on a level playing field free from racial discrimination. When employers discriminate against qualified job applicants because of what they look like or where they come from, they violate both the values that shape our nation and the laws that govern it.”

Aside from the discrimination case against the South Dakota Department of Social Services, there is a similar campaign against the DSS for unfairly targeting Native American children, and removing them from their homes. Since 2006, the Lakota People’s Law Project has been waging a comprehensive campaign to stop the State of South Dakota DSS from tearing Native children from their communities and traditions.

Chase Iron Eyes, a Native American civil rights attorney with the Lakota People’s Law Project, commented, “Not much is really changing systemically in the State of South Dakota. There are many concerns regarding how Native Americans in the state are treated. The state boot seems as though it has to be squarely on the neck of the Indian,” said Iron Eyes.

“But we are delighted that the Department of Justice is now getting involved. We just wish that they would get directly involved in more cases, and come take a look at what is happening to the way Indian people are treated in South Dakota by the DSS, law enforcement, and other entities.”

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
. . . with liberty and justice for all.