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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

LEGAL BRIEF: Black Worker Suffers "Devastating Mental Injuries" in Physical Attack - $1 Million Judgment

LEGAL BRIEF: Black Worker Suffers "Devastating Mental Injuries" in Physical Attack - $1 Million Judgment
When you think about some of the things many of us experience in the workplace, in regard to race-related abuses, you never expect to hear stories where the abuse became physical. In this legal brief, a Black female worker was harassed by a White coworker and this escalated into a physical assault that left her with permanent mental injuries.

I can think back to a friend/coworker having to deal with racially-based retaliation after complaining about comments from a White coworker. I remember her saying she had a bruise on her leg from this woman stepping into her as they passed each other. She said the woman was holding something hard and made sure it banged into her leg. And, my friend said it was becoming commonplace--this coworker stepping into her path so that she could bang into her. This was physical harassment!

Even though I believed her, she wouldn't make that up, I got to see it for myself, when I was walking down the stairs one day. This same woman, who was banging into my coworker, stepped into my path. She moved right into the middle of the stairs. We were either going to bang into each other or I was going to have to plaster myself to the wall to let her past. There was no way I could get past her. I remember thinking, "Oh my God! She's trying to run into me!" I literally had no way to get past her. Even if I stopped, she couldn't get by without running into me. She definitely wanted a physical confrontation because she knew I was friends with the person who outed her for racist remarks and reported it.

How did it end?

I can't tell a lie. I looked right at her and said...

"I will knock you down these stairs."

She plasted herself to the wall!

I'm glad she did because I think I would have pushed her down the stairs. I will not lie. I was preparing to put my hands on both of her shoulders and give her a good head over heels tumble down the stairs. She had been essentially assaulting my coworker and I took her actions as a direct physical threat to me. I did not take it lightly. When she came up the stairs, I was on the right heading down and she was on the left heading up. We were both using proper stairway etiquette. She looked up and saw it was me and, looking at me the whole time, stepped into the middle of the staircase. That registered as a physical threat to me.

As surprising as things like that were and still are to me, to hear about someone sustaining any type of mental injury from a physical assault is just upsetting. In the workplace? Really? This is what people do and are allowed to get away with.

Employers must do something about harassment and discrimination because if you tolerate it at all, you condone the behavior and embolden the perpetrator. That's how things can escalate, on either side. The perpetrator may attack the victim or the victim may just snap one day.

For more details on the legal brief, see below:

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Judge Affirms $1 Million Judgment in EEOC Sex and Race Harassment Suit Against Whirlpool

NASHVILLE – A federal judge has affirmed a million-dollar judgment against Whirlpool Corporation in a sex and race harassment lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) the agency announced on April 1st.

Judge John T. Nixon denied Whirlpool Corporation’s motion to alter and/or amend the judgment of the court, entered on Dec. 21, 2009, that Whirlpool pay $1,073,261 in damages to the discrimination victim.

“This woman was victimized by serious, ongoing abuse, and was severely and permanently damaged as a result,” said EEOC Regional Attorney Faye Williams. “A sizeable amount of damages was called for, and we are pleased that the judge agreed.”

The EEOC’s lawsuit had charged that Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool violated federal law when it tolerated the harassment of Carlotta Freeman, an employee at a Whirlpool plant in LaVergne, Tenn., by a white male co-worker because of her race (black) and sex. The abuse lasted for two months, the EEOC said, until the co-worker physically assaulted Freeman and inflicted serious permanent injuries.

During the four-day trial, the court heard evidence that Freeman reported escalating offensive verbal conduct and gestures by the co-worker over a period of two months before he physically assaulted her. The court heard that four levels of Whirlpool’s management were aware of the escalating harassment, but that Whirlpool failed to take effective steps to stop it. Further, Freeman suffered devastating permanent mental injuries that will prevent her from working again as a result of the assault and Whirlpool’s failure to protect her.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit (Civil Action No. 3:06-0593) in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. Following a bench trial, Judge Nixon awarded Freeman $773,261 in back pay and front pay, and $300,000 compensatory damages for non-pecuniary injuries.

On Jan. 15, 2010, Whirlpool requested that the court reduce the damages. The corporation claimed that the court had erred when, among other things, it awarded front and back pay without considering the fact that the plant where Freeman worked had closed. Whirlpool also claimed the court erred when it relied on certain information from Freeman’s expert witness.

In denying Whirlpool’s motion, Judge Nixon noted that it had “wide discretion to make whole the victim of unlawful discrimination.” For that reason, the court “declines to find that failing to so cut off the award of front pay to Freeman constitutes a clear error of law or manifest injustice.”

Carlota Freeman intervened in the case and was represented by Nashville attorneys Helen Rogers and Andy Allman.

The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.

Source: http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/4-1-11.cfm

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