NEW HAVEN, Conn. (Legal Newsline) – The attorney for two road-marking employees said a federal jury in Connecticut sent a strong message to state contractors about the penalty for allowing a racially discriminatory and hostile work environment.
In April, an all-white jury awarded a Sudanese Muslim $1.8 million and his African-American co-worker $1.5 million in punitive and compensatory damages for their claims against Safety Markings. Earlier this month, a settlement for an undisclosed amount was reached, and the case is now resolved.
“I am very happy with the jury’s verdict,” Lewis Chimes told Legal Newsline.
Chimes represented Yosif Bakhit, a resident of Bridgeport, Conn., who immigrated from Sudan, and Kiyada Miles of Trumbull, Conn.
“The foremen at Safety Markings would frequently pass and text each other racist jokes and comments,” the complaint filed in July 2013 said.
Bakhit and Miles alleged that five foremen at Safety Markings participated in or condoned the use of derogatory racial epithets, telling racial jokes and sharing demeaning electronic images. The two were also assigned to undesirable tasks, demoted and passed over for promotion because of their race, the complaint said.
“Non-white persons were treated less favorably with respect to terms and conditions of employment, compensation and promotion,” the complaint said.
Additionally, Bakhit claimed that he was fired in retaliation for lodging a race discrimination complaint.
Federal employment discrimination cases filed under Title VII of the 1964 federal law are subject to a $300,000 award limitation based on the size of the company. But the 1981 law (42 U.S.C. § 1981a), under which this suit was filed, does not place a cap on damages, Chimes said.
The judgment was awarded jointly and severally against defendants Safety Marking, Ray Vezina, Phil Brininger, Jeff Perra, James Cody, and Tom Hanrahan, all foremen at the company. While the bulk of the $3.4 million award was to be paid by the company, the jury’s award against the named individuals ranged from $8,000 to $30,000.
The plaintiffs’ attorney said he thought it was significant that the trial was held at a time when two presidential candidates were talking about imposing restrictions on Muslims and the nation was in the midst of a vehement debate on that issue.
“It matters that this verdict came from an all-white jury for an immigrant black man who is Muslim. The jury made it clear that everyone deserves decency and respect in the workplace,” Chimes said.
Chimes said that he did not intend to exclude jurors of color.
“I didn’t try to pick a jury to make some impact statement. There was not even one African-American on the panel to select from,” Chimes said.
The geographical area for the U.S. District Court of Connecticut stretches from New Haven to the Rhode Island border, and African-Americans are under-represented demographically, Chimes said.
According to letters between Chimes and Joshua Hawks-Ladds, the attorney for Safety Markings, the company conducted an investigation and determined that Bakhit’s and Miles’ allegations were unsubstantiated.
The jury disagreed. That should send a message to employers, Chimes said.
“The message is that these types of complaints need to be taken seriously,” Chimes said.