Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Reversed a Six-figure Jury Award in a Hostile Work Environment Case.

On January 31, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth circuit overturned a six-figure jury award in the Williams-Boldware v. Denton County case. This case was brought by Plaintiff alleging that she was subjected to a hostile work environment based upon race in violation of Title VII.

In this case, Plaintiff alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment based upon her race – as she is African-American. Plaintiff worked as an Assistant District Attorney at the Denton County District Attorney’s Office (“DA’s office”) and brought her case against the DA’s office and three other Assistant District Attorneys in their individual capacity. The case proceeded to trial and the jury ruled in favor of Plaintiff awarding her damages in the amount of $510,000.

In the fact of the case, one of Plaintiff’s colleagues went to see Plaintiff and made racists remarks regarding another African-American individual and how he understood “why people hung people from trees.” Following this incident, Plaintiff’s colleague was disciplined. However, other incidents occurred afterwards involving him and yet another colleague. These incidents led Plaintiff to file a complaint against the DA’s office and three named individuals for subjecting her to a hostile work environment based on her race. Thereafter the jury ruled in her favor and she was awarded damages for past mental anguish but the three individual defendants were dismissed.

In the appeal, Denton County argued that because the verdict and judgment of the district court were based upon “a single racially-offensive utterance,” the evidence supporting the verdict was insufficient, as a matter of law, to establish a hostile work environment claim. Besides, Defendant also asserted, as a defense that Plaintiff’s claim should fail because it took prompt remedial action to prevent any further harassing conduct. The Court of Appeals concluded that Defendant has indeed taken prompt remedial action calculated to halt the harassment and as such was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. As a matter of fact: “less than twenty-four hours after the complaint, Williams-Boldware was in a meeting with the DA and the First Assistant DA. During this meeting, she was afforded the opportunity to fully explain what she experienced. The DA’s Office’s leadership asked for her input on an appropriate response. She requested a meeting with Cary and her request was granted. Shortly thereafter, Denton County officials verbally reprimanded Cary and required that he attend a diversity training. They also ensured that Williams-Boldware would not be supervised by Cary’s wife, Susan.” “Moreover, the evidence presented did not demonstrate that any racially harassing conduct persisted after Cary was reprimanded and compelled to attend a diversity training class.”

The Court of Appeals also stated that Plaintiff failed to plead facts sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss on her failure to promote claim and affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the suit against the Individual Defendants.

If you are an employee and you believe you have been subjected to a hostile work environment based upon your race, please contact the Harman Firm LLP.