Case of five black Ulster County corrections officers to move ahead

KINGSTON – The US Court of Appeals on Friday reinstated a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by five Ulster County corrections officers who claim the county jail was rife with racist comments and abuse from coworkers and supervisors.

The appellate court ruled that a jury must determine if the officers endured a hostile work environment and whether the county is legally responsible for the work environment.

The plaintiffs are Norman James, Tyrone Brodhead, Alphonso Lacey, Pamela Lancaster and Timothy Ross. The racist comments took place in 2007-2008 and 2014-2015, when Paul Van Blarcum was sheriff, prior to the 2016 election of current Sheriff Juan Figueroa.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “The record is replete with evidence of racially derogatory language from coworkers and supervisors. There is little doubt that many, if not all, of the comments made – such as the naming of a police K-9 ‘Mandingo Hunter,’ Wenzel’s joke about black men jogging, and Officer Brook’s joke that black officers or ‘niggers’ could not become sergeants — are egregious. Some of these comments, such as the references to Lancaster as ‘Buckwheat,’ were made by a sergeant.” Other evidence included a “colored girl” comment by Sgt. Polacco and use of the words “nigger” and “jigaboo.”

The court observed that “In total, there were at least 12 instances of racial slurs during the 2014-2015 and 2007-2008 period, though there is evidence that some of these comments had also been made previously or were made ‘constantly’ and ‘all the time.’”

The jury may find the county liable for the work environment, the court ruled, because “there is no evidence that after [plaintiffs] reported a number of incidents . . . anyone spoke with the officers who made these comments.” In addition, “while in a limited number of instances [plaintiffs] did not report slurs, County Personnel Director Sheree Cross did learn of some of these incidents. There is no evidence she investigated, and awareness followed by a failure to act can result in a finding of liability.”

The five plaintiffs are represented by Nathaniel Charny, of Charny & Wheeler in Rhinebeck, and Stephen Bergstein, of Bergstein & Ullrich, LLP, in New Paltz.

In a joint statement Charny and Bergstein said, “This decision reminds us that racism has no place in a public facility. The law prohibits racial hostility in the workplace. The racial harassment at the Ulster County Jail was extensive. We look forward to presenting our evidence to a federal jury on behalf of our clients, who have suffered this racism for years.”