Saturday, May 21, 2005

Tool of the trade

At the beginning of Black History Month 2002, Norman Powell, a white employee at a NCDOT maintenance depot in Raleigh, made a noose out of a 7-ft. rope and hung it up for benefit of his black colleagues. In their case alleging a hostile work environment, seven of these black men alleged that Powell said in a meeting, "We need to go back to the way things used to be and tie them up and hang them like my father did."

The jury returned its verdict on Wednesday. They found that indeed the work environment was hostile. But they gave no money damages. Money damages depended upon a finding against DOT management, and on this point the jury credited the defense. "Lawyers for the DOT had argued that the men's supervisors believed the looped rope was a tool, not a noose, and therefore the agency was not responsible."

It was certainly a tool. Yes, that it was.

UPDATE: Last night at the NAACP Banquet I sat next to Ashley Osment, whose husband Al McSurely represented the plaintiffs. She explained that the verdict was a total loss. The way the newspaper had it, I thought it was like a civil rights case under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 in which you can get an order against a state agency telling it not to act up again, ever, even when you can't get money damages. No, this was a Title VII employment discrimination case: you not only have to prove a hostile environment, but you also have to link the management directly to it. The jury wouldn't go that far. So the plaintiffs lost. Not even a promise that it wouldn't happen again. Ashley said that because of the misleading coverage they'd fielded many "congratulations" calls. But this is not even a Phyrric victory, because nothing was gained.

No comments: