Denton County prevails in racial discrimination appeal

Back in 2012, several local Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton media outlets reported a racial discrimination suit involving a prosecutor at the Denton County District Attorney‘s office and her allegations that an assistant DA, much higher up the food chain, had made racially discriminatory remarks that constituted a hostile work environment. The trial court awarded half a million dollars to the plaintiff and the District Attorney fired the individual who made the comments, his wife and two other lawyers in the office. Denton County appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, who overturned the verdict entirely. How did comments about lynching black people and joining the KKK not prevail as a hostile work environment? Let’s discuss why.

Facts (according to the plaintiff)

Plaintiff Williams-Boldware, a black female, was, at the time of the facts she alleged, a misdemeanor prosecutor with Denton County. One day assistant DA Cary Piel entered his office and discussed a case where a black woman drove into a historical cemetery and desecrated it. When police arrived, she fought them and spewed several anti-white racist comments at them. Piel then told her the woman’s actions made him “understand why people hung people from trees” and also made him “want to go home and put on his white pointy hat.”

Cary is a self-described “redneck.” Ms. Williams-Boldware told him the comments were offensive and unwelcome. She reported the events up the chain of command and discussed it with Piel’s wife, a supervisor and somebody Ms. Williams-Boldware considered a friend. The DA’s office then reprimanded Piel and required him to attend a diversity training. The plaintiff was transferred so she would not report to Piel’s wife.

Several months later the  plaintiff overheard Piel discussing a “boombox” he needed to a trial and she believed the comments were meant to be derogatory towards black people. She reported all of the above events directly to the DA. Shortly after, another assistant DA came by her desk and called her a “troublemaker”. She complained about this latter comment and what she perceived to be an insufficient response by the office. The court also mandated that assistant DA attend diversity training.

Williams-Boldware then sued, alleging a hostile work environment motivated by race and physical and mental pain caused by the comments. The jury verdict held in her favor. The trial court limited her damages to past mental anguish, due to the limitations of the evidence presented at trial. Denton County appealed the remainder of the verdict.

Why the plaintiff lost on appeal

On appeal, Denton County asserted that it promptly and sufficiently responded to each allegation of racism by investigating the claims and in each case it reprimanded the maker of the offending comment in addition to taking Ms. Williams-Boldware out of the chain of command that included Piel’s wife.  The court agreed. In its view of the evidence, the DA’s office took prompt action to investigate each allegation and reprimanded the offender.

In hostile work environment claims, it is a defense by the employer that it took prompt remedial and disciplinary action in response to reports of the conduct by the victim or any other employee.

That does not require the employer to terminate or severely punish the offender although many employers have “zero tolerance” policies on harassment and discrimination in the workplace and will fire an offender over even a single comment.

If the response by the employer ends the harassment then that is usually sufficient evidence that the employer’s response was sufficient as a matter of law.

Here, the court held the responses were prompt and had the effect of terminating the offending conduct because no further comments were reported by the plaintiff. The court also held that the response by the DA’s office was sufficiently responsive to the offending conduct.

The offending conduct included just three comments by two employees. The court ordered those employees to attend diversity training. That response targeted the specific offenders and was fairly equal, in the court’s opinion, to the offending comment. Had the plaintiff presented evidence of more systemic racism in the department then it likely would have justified substantial response.

(There are some qualified immunity and other discrimination issues in this suit and appeal. For more information, read the appellate decision below.)

The aftermath

Following the trial verdict in 2012, the DA’s office terminated Piel, his wife and two other employees (one being the “troublemaker” commenter) in response.  The irony is if the DA had discharged Piel in the first place it probably avoids years of litigation. The larger problem with the response is that it sends a confusing message.

On on hand it says the DA’s office failed to take sufficient remedial and disciplinary action at the time the comments were made and later chose to “do the right thing” and discharge the involved employees at the same time Denton County was arguing in the appeal that the response was the sufficient.

On the other hand, it says the response was sufficient but Denton County won’t stand by its own decisions when it can use some of its employees as scapegoats. Neither creates a particularly pleasant nor cohesive workplace policy.

What you can learn from this case

As an employee it highlights the importance of promptly reporting harassment. The courts have strengthened the defenses for employers who make a reasonable effort to prevent and remedy harassment. That’s a good thing, really. It’s far better to prevent and swiftly deal with harassment than have employees struggle under harassment.

Sometimes courts give employers a little too much credit in these defenses but that is a discussion for another time. Harassment claims gain their teeth when offenders are supervisors or the employee reports harassment but the employer fails to stop it.

You can read the full appellate decision below:

Denton County DA Race DiscriminationDenton County DA Race Discrimination

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