Labor & Employment Law Daily Car salesman fired after complaining of racial harassment awarded $1.5M in damages
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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Car salesman fired after complaining of racial harassment awarded $1.5M in damages

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

According to the employee, as a result of the emotional trauma caused by his supervisor’s harassment, he has struggled through long periods of unemployment and even homelessness and has been unable to get his career back on track.

Awarding $1.5 million in damages to an African-American car salesman on his federal and state-law race discrimination claims, a federal court in Washington found his recounting of the emotional distress and accompanying harm caused by his working for and being terminated by the defendants—he alleged among other things that he was fired after complaining his supervisor had called him a “f*****g n****r”—warranted compensatory damages of $500,000. Further, finding he established that the defendants acted with malice or reckless indifference to his federally protected rights, the court awarded him $1 million in punitive damages (Thompson v. Smart Car & Leasing & Sales, LLC, January 15, 2019, Peterson, R.).

Shortly after the employee was hired, he alleged that his Caucasian supervisor questioned the need for a new worker and commented, “Oh boy, we got a brother.” During his first several days on the job, his supervisor told several inappropriate racial jokes and used the n-word on multiple occasions. After he complained, his supervisor began to threaten him, telling him he would “beat [his] skinny ass.” Once, while interacting with a customer, the employee claimed the supervisor screamed profane insults at him, causing the customer to leave and humiliating the employee. When he asked the supervisor why he was treating him that way, he purportedly responded, “I’m allergic to monkeys.”

Fired. When the employee told his supervisor he would no longer tolerate such behavior, the supervisor called him a “f*****g n****r” and fired him. The employee, believing the supervisor did not have the power to fire him, called one of the individuals who had hired him and told him what had happened. Several hours later, the employee, told that the company had to choose between him and the supervisor, was fired.

Summary judgment on most claims. He sued, asserting claims under Section 1981 and state law. Not only did he encounter problems accomplishing service on one of the individual defendants, the defendants’ attorney moved to withdraw as counsel. After that time, the defendants failed to participate in the case. The employee subsequently moved for summary judgment on all claims.

Granting his motion in part, the court, in a prior order, found he established Section 1981 discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims as well as racial harassment and racially hostile work environment claims under the Washington Law Against Discrimination. Because these claims demonstrated that other relief was available to the employee to protect against the discrimination and retaliation he experienced, the court granted summary judgment against his public policy wrongful termination claim.

Sanction of default judgment. The court also found that the sanction of default judgment against the defendants was appropriate as an alternate ground for finding the defendants liable. Their nonparticipation in the case was willful, said the court, noting that combative comments by the individual defendant to the employee’s counsel indicated they were aware of the proceedings and intended to flaunt the requirement that counsel represent a limited liability corporation. Further, they consistently refused to communicate, unreasonably delaying the litigation.

Damages. The employee then moved for damages, jointly and severally, against the defendants, requesting emotional distress damages “in an amount between $250,000 and $500,000″ and $1 million in punitive damages. Addressing compensatory damages first, the court observed that the employee declared under penalty of perjury in support of his motion for summary judgment that his experience of racial harassment at the defendants’ workplace “had a profound impact on all aspects of [his] life.” Not only was he emotionally traumatized by the events at work, he struggled to find another job, felt he had to leave the state, and, since relocating, has “not been able to get [his] professional career back on track” and has struggled through prolonged periods of unemployment and even homelessness. Thus, said the court, his recounting of the emotional distress and accompanying harm caused by his experience working for, and being terminated by, the defendants, all of which they either admitted or did not dispute, warranted a compensatory damage award of $500,000.

Further, the court found the supervisor’s discriminatory actions against the employee were not only egregious, the defendants knew about his conduct when they terminated him. In its prior order, the court found they admitted that race was a substantial factor in the termination decision and that there was a “causal connection” between his reporting his experience of racial harassment and his termination. In that order, the court also found the employee established that the hostile work environment he experienced was properly imputed to the defendants because they had full knowledge of the racial harassment before and on the day they fired him. Granting summary judgment to the employee on damages, the court held that these findings supported that the defendants acted with “malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights” of the employee and justified the punitive damages award of $1,000,000.

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