By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.
The employee presented evidence at trial that his employer turned a blind eye to his supervisor’s known pattern of racially motivated abuse, including hurling racial slurs at him and forcing him to work in unsafe conditions.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed a $250,000 punitive damages award to an African-American deckhand who convinced a jury that his employer exhibited “reckless indifference” to his rights by failing to take any action to discipline a foreman who regularly used racial slurs and who placed him in dangerous work conditions that led to a heart attack, including never even interviewing the employee after he made several complaints or after management received corroboration from coworkers following an anonymous complaint. And while the jury only awarded him $1 in compensatory damages, the fact the jury may not have been able to easily quantify the monetary value of his injuries did not mean “the indignities he suffered were insubstantial” (Bryant v. Jeffrey Sand Co., March 18, 2019, Kelly, J.).
Racial slurs and unfair treatment. From 2009 to 2013, the employee worked as a deckhand on a barge, where he was the only black employee. During that time, his foreman often taunted him by using racially derogatory language, including calling him names like “n****r,” “spear chucker,” “porch monkey,” and “boy.” The supervisor also singled him out for difficult work and pushed him around to try to get him to instigate a fight.
Complaints ignored. The employee reported the foreman’s conduct to his superiors—twice to the plant manager and four times to the company president—but received no response, and the company had no written anti-discrimination policy and no HR personnel. After he complained again to the plant manager on May 4, 2012, the manager claimed he sent another worker to the barge for a few days in an attempt to corroborate the allegations, but the worker didn’t hear any slurs. The manager then took no further action and the harassment continued.
Dangerous working conditions. On August 7, 2012, the foreman ordered the employee to paint rails in the hot sun and refused to allow him access to water. When he complained that he felt ill, the foreman told him to “go out there and paint those rails like I told your black ass to.” The employee sought assistance from a coworker who measured his blood pressure, which was very high, and convinced the foreman to call an ambulance. It was later determined that he had suffered a heart attack and he did not return to work for two weeks.
Anonymous complaint. Several months later, a coworker submitted an anonymous email informing the company about “overheard” racist comments by the foreman. Management interviewed several workers, one of whom corroborated that the foreman made racist comments toward the plaintiff. However, he was discounted as merely a disgruntled employee. And while several others also reported having heard second-hand about the foreman using racial slurs, management never interviewed the employee, no disciplinary action was taken against the foreman, and the employee was subsequently terminated due to purported absenteeism.
Jury award. He brought this Section 1981 lawsuit asserting both hostile work environment and retaliation claims, but his retaliation claim was dismissed on summary judgment. His hostile work environment claim proceeded to trial and the jury found in his favor, awarding him $1 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. The district court also granted his motion for $64,432 in attorney’s fees and $1,028 in costs.
Punitive damages. The jury reasonably concluded that the employer exhibited reckless indifference to the employee’s rights. The record showed he repeatedly complained his supervisor was using racial slurs, but his superiors never interviewed him in response to the foreman’s alleged “clear intent” to discriminate against him based on race. Even when a coworker corroborated his allegations, the company did not take any action to discipline the foreman or prevent further harassment. The employer also lacked any formal or informal policy prohibiting workplace discrimination.
Timeliness. The employee’s claim was also timely under the applicable four-year statute of limitations since at least one act of the hostile work environment events occurred after July 13, 2012 (four years before he filed his lawsuit). Several witnesses testified that the foreman’s abuse continued into the limitations period and that the employer was on notice of that abuse. The employee also suffered a heart attack in August 2012, after the foreman forced him to work in the hot sun without access to water despite his report that he felt ill. Moreover, the employer was on notice of the foreman’s abuse from the employee’s earlier complaints, and was alerted again to the issue by an anonymous complaint in January 2013.
Damages not excessive. The appeals court also rejected the employer’s contention that the $250,000 punitive damages award was excessive and disproportionate to the nominal compensatory damages award. The district court properly found that the company’s conduct was “clearly reprehensible” and its indifference to the employee’s complaints was “no less egregious” than the “meager efforts” of the plaintiffs in two other hostile work environment cases where punitive damages awards were affirmed. In particular, the foreman’s verbal and physical abuse went unchecked even after a coworker corroborated the employee’s allegations and the foreman placed him at risk of serious injury.
Not disproportional to injury. Declining “to place undue weight on the mathematical ratio between compensatory and punitive damages,” the court explained that the “general goal” of the proportionality factor is to ensure that punitive damages are “proportional to the actual injury suffered.” Here, the higher award was justified because “a particularly egregious act has resulted in only a small amount of economic damages” and “the monetary value of noneconomic harm might have been difficult to determine.” Thus, while the jury may not have been able to easily quantify the monetary value of the employee’s injuries, that did not mean “the indignities he suffered were insubstantial.”
Attorneys’ fees upheld. Finally, the Eighth Circuit upheld the attorneys’ fee award, rejecting the employer’s assertion that the district court erroneously accepted the lodestar rate of $350 per hour based solely on counsel’s representation that he had been awarded fees at this rate in similar recent cases. Though the company argued that the employee should have been required to submit a sworn affidavit attesting that this was his counsel’s “normal” hourly rate, the law imposed no such requirement and the employer failed to otherwise undermine the reasonableness of the rate.
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