ALBUQUERQUE — Thousands of Navajo citizens currently or formerly employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Bureau of Indian Education have joined together for a large-scale class action lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court.

Albuquerque-based attorney Jeff Dahl filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court in New Mexico's largest city because of its proximity to the Navajo Nation, where the majority of the plaintiffs live.

"A class action of this nature, I'm not aware of one going to federal court before," said Dahl, who is serving as lead counsel in the case. "In terms of a class action filed by members of the Navajo Nation against the BIA, this is the first that I know of."

The complaint, led by two former employees, seeks relief from racial discrimination, a charge based on numerous accounts of Navajo employees targeted for removal to make room for non-Navajo employees.

The complaint also includes allegations that BIE management preselected people for positions and even wrote job descriptions for non-Navajo employees, excluding qualified Navajo applicants from consideration.

Most BIA or BIE agencies, including grant schools, are subject to Navajo preference laws, which instructs employers to hire a qualified Navajo applicant over a qualified non-Navajo.

"This has been an ongoing thing," Dahl said. "One of the things we've alleged is that a pattern exists. The (BIA) has a pattern in their discrimination."

Plaintiff Beatrice Woodward claims she was forced to retire as an education line officer for the BIE when she was reassigned suddenly to supervise a school in Portland, Ore.

According to the complaint, Woodward was given five days to either move from the Navajo Nation to Oregon, or retire. Woodward worked for the BIE for 36 years.

The other lead plaintiff, Calandra McCabe, alleges she was denied employment advancement opportunities within the BIA's Office of Facilities, Management and Construction, where she worked as an architect.

McCabe, who has a pending complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity office, claims applications for management opportunities were rejected, including attempts to obtain training and education.

Joining the class action lawsuit were thousands of Navajo citizens now or previously employed by the federal agency, including Aztec resident Betty Damon.

Damon, former home-living specialist for the Aztec Peripheral Dormitory, was fired in November 2007 for insubordination and disloyalty, according to her termination notice.

Damon, who now works as a bilingual educator at Apache Elementary School in Farmington, believes she was fired for calling attention to what she believed was misuse of federal dollars and improper hiring protocol.

"Most of the things going on in these grant and contract schools, the people are not doing their jobs," she said. "They need to be held accountable for what they are in charge of."

Plaintiffs include all current and past Navajo citizens of all pay grades employed by the BIA or BIE between Jan. 1, 2000, and the present who were subjects of alleged discrimination, the complaint states.

Acts of discrimination include unwanted transfers, forced resignation, hostile work environment, lost training opportunities and pay discrepancies.

The lawsuit does not cover the interests of non-Navajo employees of the BIA.

"The members of the class, as Navajo tribal members whose employment has been adversely affected as a result of decisions of the BIA, is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable," the complaint states. "Because the damages suffered by each individual class member vary, the expense and burden of individual litigation make it virtually impossible for all class members to seek redress for the wrongful conduct alleged herein."

The BIA refused to comment on the case.

"Anything regarding litigation we don't usually comment on," spokeswoman Nedra Darling said.

Alysa Landry:

alandry@daily-times.com