The link to the decision is here. Megan Goddard and Nathaniel Charny tried the case. I assisted with the post-trial motion, which included challenges to liability and the damages awards. Parts I and II of this series of blog posts are at these links.
First, on liability, one of many issues arising in this 67-page ruling covers the issue of the racist intent of plaintiff's supervisor. Plaintiff is black. He suffered a series of adverse actions in the course of his career as a sugar-machine operator. One of defendants' arguments is that plaintiff put on no evidence of discriminatory intent. Yet, his boss, Ramphal, referred to plaintiff as "you people" in the course of Ramphal's persistent claims that employees from Guyana were better at making sugar than other employees, like plaintiff. That is, "you people" are stupid.
There is not much law on "you people" evidence and how the jury may interpret that phrase. Judge Kelly says the jury was able to infer discriminatory intent. "The jury was free to accept Plaintiff’s understanding of the phrase 'you people' as a phrase having a racial connotation." More to the point:
“[A]n inference of discriminatory intent may be derived from a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to: . . . the employer’s criticism of the plaintiffs performance in ethnically degrading terms; or its invidious comments about others in the employee’s protected group; or the more favorable treatment of employees not in the protected group[.]” Leibowitz v. Cornell Univ., 584 F.3d 487, 502 (2d Cir. 2009). Phrases such as “you people” can be construed “as circumstantial evidence of “discriminatory animus,” Whitehurst v. 230 Fifth, Inc., 998 F. Supp. 2d 233, 253 n.14 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) and as connoting a racial meaning, see Hill v. City of New York, 136 F. Supp. 3d 304, 337 (E.D.N.Y. 2015), especially when presented in conjunction with evidence of discriminatory treatment. See Winston v. Verizon Servs. Corp., 633 F. Supp. 2d 42, 53 (S.D.N.Y. 2009).As for the punitive damages, the jury awarded plaintiff $2 million. Under Title VII, however, that amount is reduced to $300,000. The jury finds the jury had a basis to award punitive damages and that the $300,000 does not "shock the conscience." Here is how Judge Kelly sees it:
The evidence proffered at trial is sufficient to support the conclusion that Defendant ASR’s misconduct was reprehensible. At trial, the evidence showed a company-wide failure to take seriously Plaintiff’s complaints of discrimination, and that Plaintiff was subjected to a demotion and loss of overtime opportunities because he complained. There is evidence on the record supporting a finding that the employer acted maliciously in demoting Plaintiff and issuing improper discipline, while ignoring Plaintiff’s complaints regarding Defendant Ramphal’s behavior that led to Plaintiff’s transfer to a lower-paying position. Plaintiff testified to being improperly disciplined, and as a result, reaching the final step of the progressive discipline system. Subsequently, the company attempted to get Plaintiff to sign a last chance agreement which would have prevented Plaintiff from grieving not only the treatment he endured under the supervision of Defendant Ramphal, but also anything going forward.
Plaintiff also testified to having multiple conversations with manager Mendonca beginning in the fall of 2011 regarding Defendant Ramphal’s allegedly discriminatory behavior. Manager Mendonca testified at trial that she did not believe a meeting would resolve the issues and continually declined to allow the meeting to happen, even after several requests from Plaintiff. Instead, manager Mendonca testified that she told Plaintiff that she would address the issues he brought to her attention with Defendant Ramphal herself and that she did so following every conversation with Plaintiff on this matter. However, during trial, Defendant Ramphal testified that no one at the company made him aware of Plaintiff’s complaints against him until October of 2016.
Further, manager Mendonca Case testified that she spoke with human resources manager Troche regarding Plaintiff’s request for a meeting and that she did not believe a meeting would be productive. Human resources manager Troche confirmed that she spoke with manager Mendonca about a meeting, that she knew Plaintiff attempted to set up a meeting with Mendonca and was denied, and that “any time [Plaintiff] came to [her], [she] would say, you need to speak to Liz [Mendonca] about it.” However, Troche also testified that she “wouldn’t condone” managers refusing a meeting with their employees, upon request, and that although she knew that Plaintiff had already spoken with Mendonca, her practice was to “always refer the employees back to their supervisors or manager to work out the issues.” At that time Defendant Ramphal was Plaintiff’s supervisor, and according to Plaintiff, Defendant Ramphal continued to use discriminatory language against him.
Plaintiff presented evidence that, Defendant ASR never conducted an investigation into Plaintiff’s claims, nor followed the procedures outlined in the company’s code of conduct. For example, at trial, human resources manager Troche testified that the company’s code of conduct allows an employee alleging discrimination to bypass the standard procedure of first reporting a given issue to their supervisor, and can instead report the discrimination directly to human resources. The jury also heard Troche testify that the company is obligated to respond to a grievance within ten days. However, the jury heard testimony that Plaintiff filed two grievances citing CBA Article 10 discrimination with human resources, that these grievances were initially not processed for failure to follow the standard procedure, and that one of these grievances was denied a year later.
The jury also heard testimony that Plaintiff reported Defendant Ramphal’s behavior to manager Mendonca and human resources manager Troche and requested a meeting to discuss this behavior, but was denied on several occasions. From the actions of Defendant ASR’s staff, the jury could appropriately find malice and deceit.