WASHINGTON - In the latest of a series of successes in the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC's) challenges to workplace racial harassment, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the EEOC's victory in obtaining a jury verdict and more than $243,000 and injunctive relief for victims of racial harassment and retaliation perpetrated by A.C. Widenhouse, Inc., a Concord, N.C.-based trucking company, the agency announced today.
"Fifty years ago, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which transformed the nation by removing discriminatory barriers that impeded human potential and productivity," said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez. "Unfortunately, as the facts of this case and others brought by the Commission show, racial discrimination persists. Yet this case also highlights the vitality of the law as a Winston-Salem jury, acting as the conscience of the community, took less than one hour to send the unanimous message that race discrimination, in this case overt and unfiltered, is unacceptable. Then, the appellate court took less than a month to affirm this important verdict."
Lynette A. Barnes, Regional Attorney for the EEOC's Charlotte District, which litigated the case on behalf of the agency, said, "The court's affirmation of this verdict sends a strong message to employers. First the jury, and now the appellate court, spoke to this employer loud and clear - racial harassment will not be tolerated."
According to the EEOC's lawsuit, Contonius Gill and Robert Floyd, Jr., African-Americans, worked as truck drivers for A.C. Widenhouse. From as early as May 2007 through at least June 2008, Gill was repeatedly subjected to unwelcome derogatory racial comments and slurs by the facility's general manager, (who was also his supervisor), the company's dispatcher, several mechanics and other truck drivers, all of whom are white. The comments and slurs included the "N" word, "monkey" and "boy." Gill testified that on one occasion he was approached by a co-worker with a noose and was told, "This is for you. Do you want to hang from the family tree?" Gill further testified that he was asked by white employees if he wanted to be the "coon" in their "coon hunt."
Floyd testified that he also was subjected to repeated derogatory racial comments and slurs by the company's general manager and white employees. Floyd testified that when was hired in 2005, he was the only African-American working at the company. According to Floyd, the company's general manager told Floyd that he was the company's "token black." Floyd testified that on another occasion the general manager told Floyd, "Don't find a noose with your name on it," and talked about having some of his "friends" visit Floyd in the middle of the night. Gill repeatedly complained about racial harassment to the company's dispatcher and general manager and Floyd complained to an owner of A.C. Widenhouse, but both men testified that the harassment continued.
Gill intervened in the lawsuit and in addition to the EEOC's claim of racial harassment, Gill alleged that his employment with A.C. Widenhouse was terminated based on his race and in retaliation for complaining about racial harassment.
A Winston-Salem jury of eight returned a unanimous verdict finding that Gill and Floyd, Jr. had been harassed because of their race, and that Gill had been fired because of his race and in retaliation for complaining about racial harassment.
The district court ruled that the EEOC should recover $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of Floyd, and that Gill should recover $193,509 in compensatory and punitive damages, back pay, and pre-judgment interest. The court further enjoined A.C. Widenhouse from discriminating against any person on the basis of race or in retaliation for opposing practices unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The three-year injunction also requires A.C. Widenhouse to implement a written anti-discrimination policy; conduct training on Title VII to all employees and to all owners involved in the company's operations; post the anti-discrimination policy and a notice to employees regarding the lawsuit; and provide the EEOC with periodic reports regarding complaints about racial harassment.
Although the jury took less than an hour to reach its unanimous verdict, A.C. Widenhouse appealed to the Fourth Circuit, arguing that the trial court had committed errors in instructing the jury and in ruling on the admissibility of evidence.
The court of appeals firmly rejected these arguments, saying that the company's challenges to the EEOC's case were without merit and that the trial court had not abused its discretion in any way in its conduct of the trial. Although the jury was not instructed in accordance with subsequently announced Supreme Court standards on Gill's retaliation claim, the court of appeals said that A.C. Widenhouse had not demonstrated any prejudice from that error, and upheld the verdict on that claim as well.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on the agency's web site at www.eeoc.gov.