Attorneys for the city of Mobile have asked for federal jurisdiction in a discrimination lawsuit initially filed in circuit court by a local minority-owned contractor. Attorneys Neal Townsend and Raymond Bell argue U.S. District Court is a more appropriate jurisdiction when dealing with discrimination claims.

“Here, [the plaintiff] has pled several claims against the defendant alleging that [the city] violated federal statutes and constitutional provisions … and violations of the federal Community Development Block Grant Program,” the filing states. “As such, [federal] court has jurisdiction.”

In the complaint, Ronnie Williams, an attorney for minority-owned Dortch, Figures & Sons, claims the city repeatedly passed over the contractor on projects using federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), despite the company having the proper qualifications.

“The defendant’s agents would repeatedly state that the plaintiff did not have the necessary qualifications, but would then proceed to accept bids from other companies that had no more licenses or qualifications than the plaintiff,” the suit states. “At the time [Dortch] was being rejected … on city projects, the plaintiff was successfully bidding on similar projects in other municipalities without any problems or concerns regarding qualifications.”

As further proof of the contractor’s qualifications, Dortch enlisted Thompson Engineering to review the requirements for contractors set out by the Alabama Department of Transportation, the complaint stated. Thompson found Dortch met all qualifications.

As recently as November 2017, Dortch was rejected for a project awarded to a white-owned business with the same qualifications, the suit reads.

Williams said he had no comment on the legal action.

“I think it pretty much speaks for itself,” he said.

In the suit, Dortch admits it has been a subcontractor on some of the work in question. At issue is anti-discrimination language from the federal law attached to the award of CDBG funds.

“This federal law provides in part that no person shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of or otherwise be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” the suit reads.

Dortch is asking the court to find that the city discriminated against it in awarding the bids for CDBG work. It’s asking for an injunction against the city to prohibit further discriminatory action during the bidding process and to force the city to cease all bidding operations and implement procedures to ensure participation from minority-owned firms. Additionally, the suit is asking for all income lost due to the discrimination and $50,000 for having to “suffer humiliation, stress and embarrassment of this unlawful treatment.”

The Zoghby Act, the law establishing the city’s current form of government, does provide that at least 15 percent of the work done through an awarded contract be performed by a disadvantaged business enterprise, including minority-owned firms. The practice has been highlighted recently with work related to the city’s capital improvement program.

Townsend said he and Bell have “absolute confidence” in the city and its handling of contracts through the bid process. He said he expects the case to be moved to federal court.