March 29, 2011

TWO JURY AWARDS IN SECTION 1983 RACE DISCRIMINATION LAWSUITS

by Art Gutman Ph.D., Professor, Florida Institute of Technology

The first case is Matusick v. Erie County Water Authority (ECWA) decided in front of Judge Richard J. Arcara in the District Court of the Western District of New York [2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20049, 3/1/11]. Matusick, a white male, alleged that he was subjected to racial harassment as well as a physical assault after dating (and ultimately marrying) Anita Starks, a black woman. Matusick complained to his supervisors to no avail, and was ultimately terminated for infractions which, Matusick admittedly committed. However, Matusick alleged that similarly situated employees committing similar infractions were less harshly treated, and that his termination was in retaliation for his harassment complaints. Matusick, a customer service representative, filed a Section 1983 (14th Amendment) lawsuit against ECWA, and also sued several others in both their official and individual capacities. After a trial, the jury awarded Matusick $364,825 in back pay, lawyer fees and costs, and $5,000 each against four of the individual defendants for punitive damages in their individual capacities. However, the jury declined to award compensatory damages for non-economic loss. Judge Arcara upheld these awards.

The second case is Hernandez v. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) [N.D. Ga., No. 1:08-cv-1852-TCB, 3/2/11]. Hernandez, a white police lieutenant, alleged there was a pattern or practice of discrimination against white employees, as well as retaliation for complaining about discrimination. Hernandez alleged that he was passed over for promotions on three occasions, each time in favor of less qualified black applicants. He also alleged that he was given a poor performance evaluation in retaliation for complaining. Hernandez sued MARTA and Police Chief Wanda Dunham in her personal capacity under Section 1983. There were also Title VII charges. After a trial, a jury declined to find that MARTA had intentionally discriminated against Hernandez. However, the jury did find in favor of Hernandez on retaliation and award to him $100,000 in lost wages and benefits, $450,000 in compensatory damages for emotional pain and anguish, and $150,000 against Chief Dunham for retaliation in her personal capacity.

There are two important points to note about these cases.

First, Section 1983 permits monetary awards from individual defendants, whereas Title VII does not. Thus, in both cases, there were punitive damages against defendants in their individual (or personal capacity). It should be noted that punitive damages are not permitted against government agencies under any conditions in either Section 1983 or Title VII.

Second, although both Title VII and Section 1983 permit compensatory damages (for non-economic remedies) against municipal agencies, it is more difficult to extract these damages in Section 1983. In the MARTA case, a policy making official was deemed responsible for the retaliation, and therefore exposed the agency to damages. It should be noted that the amount of damages against MARTA ($450,000) exceeds the maximum for such damages under Title VII ($300,000). However, in the ECWA, damages were not awarded against the agency because the individual defendants were not high policymakers.

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