Queens College granted reversal of bias verdict

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A federal court judge has reversed a jury verdict that Queens College and two professors were guilty of discriminating against a black graduate student in grading his comprehensive exam for a master's degree in media studies.

Derek Tolbert, a black graduate student and high school teacher pursuing a master's degree in media studies, alleged that two media studies professors discriminated against him by failing him on a final exam in 1993 while holding Chinese students who passed the same test to a lower standard.

In a suit filed in federal court in Brooklyn, Tolbert claimed one of the professors told him that exam graders had "cut slack" for the Chinese students because of their cultural differences.

In August 1999 a jury in federal court in Brooklyn found that Queens College and the two professors had discriminated against Tolbert, who was then a Bayside resident.

Queens College and the two professors, Stuart Liebman and Helen Cairns, were held liable for $50,000 in punitive damages under the jury verdict.

But Judge Bernard Friedman, a Michigan federal judge sitting by designation in the Eastern District in Brooklyn, overturned the $50,000 award after Queens College and the professors moved to have the jury verdict dismissed.

"It is clear that the plaintiff failed to prove that his race played any role whatsoever in influencing the manner in which the defendants treated him," Friedman said, in reading his verdict.

Queens College said Tolbert and the other students were asked to answer 10 test questions, which were graded anonymously.

Queens College spokesman Ron Cannava said students are given a code number so that their identity is not known to faculty members grading the exams.

Tolbert refused to retake the examination when given the opportunity, Queens College said.

Friedman said no evidence was presented that the two professors in the Media Studies Department had a discriminatory grading policy based on race and that evidence showed "every student's examination was graded in the same manner and that a student's race or ethnicity played no role whatsoever in the evaluation."

Friedman concluded that "the plaintiff failed to produce evidence from which a jury could reasonably have found that any of the defendants discriminated against plaintiff based on race."

Fred Brewington, Tolbert's attorney, said the suit was based on the "cut slack" statement made by one of the professors.

"The suit was borne out by the professor's own statement," he said.

Brewington said there was a "great likelihood" Tolbert would appeal the decision.

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