Recently, a federal circuit court of appeals overturned a six-figure jury award in a case alleging racial harassment that involved talk of lynching and thinly veiled references to the Ku Klux Klan. Here’s another example of where an employer’s prompt response really paid off.
Racial comments and complaints
The case was brought by Denton County, TX, Assistant District Attorney Nadiya Williams-Boldware against another prosecutor in the office, Cary Piel, based upon Piel’s comments. Piel was a “self-described redneck” and was talking one day to Williams-Boldware about a case involving an African-American defendant who had driven through and “desecrated” a historic cemetery. When police responded to the scene, the defendant spewed racist language at them. Piel told Williams-Boldware, who was also African-American, that the woman’s actions “made him understand why people hung from trees,” and also made Piel “want to go home and put on his white pointy hat.”
The same day that Piel made the comments, Williams-Boldware made a complaint which moved quickly through the DA’s office. The next day, the district attorney reprimanded Piel and required him to attend diversity training. At the same time, Williams-Boldware was assigned to a division where she would not be supervised by Piel’s wife. Two months after Piel’s discipline and her transfer, Williams-Boldware overheard Piel say he needed a “boombox” for an upcoming trial. Williams-Boldware took Piel’s comments as a critique of African-American culture. Her feelings were reinforced when Piel went on to state, “I better watch what I say or else I’ll have to take another one of those classes.” Four weeks later, another assistant district attorney called Williams-Boldware a “troublemaker” as he was walking past her office.
Let the litigation begin … and end
Williams-Boldware filed a lawsuit claiming that the actions and comments of her co-workers amounted to a race-based hostile work environment that violated Title VII. The jury agreed with the assistant district attorney and awarded her $510,000. But wait …
The appeals court overturned the jury and found in favor of the employer. While the facts were largely undisputed, they were not sufficient to prove Williams-Boldware experienced a hostile work environment for which Denton County should be held liable. The court explained: “These incidents did not involve a protracted outpouring of racially invidious harassment that required large-scale institutional reform.” The court further concluded “Denton County was required to implement prompt remedial measures to prevent Cary, and anyone else, from engaging in racially harassing conduct toward Williams-Boldware.” The court approved Denton County’s response, saying it “could not have been more prompt.”
In less than 24 hours after her complaint, Williams-Boldware was meeting with the district attorney and his first assistant. During this meeting, Williams-Boldware was afforded the opportunity to fully explain the comments and to describe what she experienced. The district attorney and first assistant requested Williams-Boldware’s input on crafting an appropriate response. Williams-Boldware requested a meeting with Piel, and her request was granted. Immediately thereafter, officials from Denton County verbally reprimanded Piel and required Piel to attend diversity training. County officials also took steps to ensure that Williams-Boldware would no longer be supervised by Piel’s wife.
Denton County’s quick and reasonable reaction to William-Boldware’s complaints made the difference. The employer’s rapid response also made sure additional, perhaps even more offensive, comments or behavior did not occur.
Williams-Boldware v. Denton County, Case No. 13-40044 (5th Cir. 1/31/14)