By Ann F. Kiernan, Esq., Lead Trainer
Rickey Moland, an African American, was hired as a production supervisor at a California manufacturer, responsible for about half of the employees at the plant. He was the first black manager ever hired at the plant and was the only black employee during the two years he worked there. One of the workers Mr. Moland supervised was threatening and disrespectful to him and had violated safety procedures, which led to the worker’s termination by the plant manager and HR director. Co-workers resented the firing, and began treating Mr. Moland rudely, using the "n-word" and other racial epithets. Some employees were downright insubordinate.
Three months after the worker's termination, the plant manager gave Mr. Moland a good performance review and a 3 percent raise. A few months later, after Mr. Moland had disciplined the plant manager’s daughter for a forklift accident, his relationship with the plant manager began to deteriorate. Mr. Moland called the HR director to report that the plant manager had been driving while drunk, and that several employees were using racial slurs towards him. Around the same time, several employees called the company hotline to report racist incidents and threats made to Mr. Moland. After an investigation that the appeals court later called “inadequate”, the internal investigator reported that she could not substantiate racial discrimination but did find that plant management was “extremely dysfunctional.” The general manager and HR director then fired Mr. Moland, claiming that his management style was not compatible with the plant manager’s.
Mr. Moland sued the company for discrimination and wrongful termination. The jury found in his favor and awarded him $2,873,514 in compensatory damages and $13,800,000 in punitive damages. In addition, the trial judge awarded Mr. Moland $1,551,605 in attorneys' fees.
The company appealed, claiming that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Mr. Morland: He and the plant manager "could not get along" and their management styles differed. But, as the appellate court found in upholding the jury verdict, “there was substantial evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer that [management] knew Moland's race was the underlying source of discord in the plant and that, rather than addressing the problem by properly investigating and taking steps to prevent discrimination, [management] chose to terminate Moland's employment.” The court then added: “It was a reasonable inference from the evidence that [the employer] fired Moland because the company thought his race, rather than the white employees who called him ‘n*****’ and ‘coon’, was the problem.”
In its 2020 decision, the appeals court also found that the evidence supported the jury's finding that the company engaged in “reprehensible” conduct that justified an award of punitive damages. But the panel concluded that the award was excessive and reduced it from $13.8 million to $5,747,028, twice the amount of compensatory damages.
Moland v. McWane Inc., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1424 (Cal. Ct. App. March 2, 2020).
What this means to you: The employer lost because it chose to handle racial conflict by firing the only African American employee, rather than creating a more inclusive and less hostile work environment. Are you surprised that the jury found in Mr. Moland’s favor?
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