CHICAGO - A federal judge has restricted the number of workers who can participate in a 1998 class action that accuses the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago of discriminating against African-American workers.

U.S. District Judge William J. Hibbler ruled last week that only people who work at the bank or had done so since Feb. 26, 1996, can join the case, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said. Lawyers for the plaintiffs had requested that the time limit be set at 1964.

The lawsuit alleges that the Chicago Fed discriminated against African-American workers by passing over them for promotions, excluding them from managerial posts, and paying them lower wages. The suit also suggests the work of black employees was held up to more scrutiny than that of nonblacks.

The judge's decision will reduce the pool of potential plaintiffs from original estimates of 1,200 to 2,000 down to 800 to 1,600 current and former African-American workers. That would substantially limit the monetary damages the Chicago Fed may face, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said.

"It's a disappointment, but we may have another opportunity to change his mind," said Chicago lawyer Edward T. Stein, whose firm represents the 14 plaintiffs in the case. The damages "could have reached $50 million to $100 million," he said. "Now, if we win, that would be $20 million to $40 million."

Class eligibility requested in the original suit called for including existing or former employees who worked at the bank from 1964 to present, Mr. Stein said.

The judge ruled, however, that the 36-year time period is too broad.

A spokesman for the Chicago bank supported the ruling.

"We're pleased that the judge ruled that the class should be limited in scope," said Bob Lapinski, a spokesman for the Chicago Fed. "We felt it was much more appropriate."

Aside from monetary damages, the suit also seeks to change what it calls the discriminatory practices of the bank.

"We want these practices to stop and want to change the way the Fed operates so this doesn't happen again," Mr. Stein said.

The bank declined to discuss the allegations in the suit.

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