Punitive Damages for Civil Rights – Convincing the Jury and Judge By Jeffrey Needle“Let this case serve as a lesson for all employers who would ignore the existence of racial harassment in the workplace.” With those introductory words, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a jury’s verdict for $1 million in punitive damages and $35,612 in compensatory damages. In the process, not only was justice served for the Plaintiff, Troy Swinton, but strong precedent was created for future civil rights claimants. Swinton v. Potomac Corporation, 270 F.3d 794 (9th Cir. Oct. 24, 2001). Although the Defendant portrayed the racial harassment suffered by Mr. Swinton as “jokes”, the Ninth Circuit correctly understood that neither the verdict nor the discrimination was a laughing matter. Id. at 799. Not only did the Plaintiff get what he deserved, but the Defendant, Potomac Corporation, got what it deserved as well.
On the issue of liability, the Court in Swinton analyzed at considerable length the various of theories of holding an employer liable and a variety of evidentiary issues relevant to liability and punitive damages. The Court also considered the legal issues which define the availability of a punitive damages award and the legal standard for keeping the punitive damages once awarded. The Court determined that a ratio of punitive to compensatory damages of 28:1 was not excessive. Satisfying the legal standard concerning an award of punitive damages, however, is only half the battle. Convincing the jury that an award of punitive damages is appropriate can often be the more difficult task.
Convincing the Jury
It is uniquely the function of punitive damages to punish the defendant, and to deter future misconduct by the defendant and others similarly situated. Especially for large corporations, relatively insubstantial compensatory damages don’t begin to measure the enormity of the defendant’s wrongful behavior, and have no deterrent effect. It is for that reason that punitive damages are an essential ingredient in all civil rights litigation.
The availability of punitive damages in civil rights cases affords juries the opportunity to enhance the quality of equal opportunity and\or constitutional freedoms, not just for the litigants before the court, but in the community at large. They create an opportunity to give contemporary meaning and vitality to the universal ideals which distinguish this country as a free society. Punitive damages in civil rights cases promotes this highest public purpose.
The challenge to trial lawyers is to communicate to juries the broad and compelling social justification for a punitive damages award. This requires a special focus on social issues which transcend a monetary award from a particular defendant to a particular plaintiff. In order to achieve the intended purpose, it must be clearly explained to the jury that an award of punitive damages doesn’t represent what the plaintiff deserves, but what the defendant deserves for its reckless disregard of fundamental constitutional or civil rights.
Almost all Americans are extremely passionate about the Bill of Rights and the right to equal opportunity. The eloquence to convince them that these are ideals which need to be perpetuated can be legitimately borrowed from Thomas Jefferson or James Madison in the case of constitutional rights, or legendary civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Thurgood Marshall for the cases involving equal opportunity. For example, liberal use of quotations from King’s “I have a Dream” speech have almost irresistible appeal. References to Jackie Robinson, the first African American major league baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, or Rosa Parks, who refused to sit on the back of the bus, always resonate with jurors.
A brief historical review of the struggle for equal opportunity is appropriate to communicate to the jury their role in a continuing effort. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, is often utilized in cases involving race harassment or discrimination. This statute was originally enacted to guarantee the civil rights of newly emancipated slaves, and to eliminate the vestiges of slavery which existed immediately after the Civil War. But initially, the statute didn’t fulfill its intended purpose. In the years immediately after the Civil War, newly emancipated slaves were denied the most basic civil rights; they were denied the right to own property, to vote, to enter places of public accommodation and hold employment. African Americans were second class citizens in this county in virtually every sense of the word.
Comparisons to the system of apartheid in South Africa serve to illustrate that the principles the jury is being asked to vindicate are the ideals that distinguish our country as a free society. In our country the repressive system of segregation wasn’t called apartheid, it was called Jim Crow. But the concept was essentially the same. For almost 90 years after the Civil War, Jim Crow was the rule of law. In May of 1954, the Supreme Court rejected the concept and required integration in the public schools. Important civil rights statutes followed. Substantial progress has been made. But the vestiges of slavery still exist in the country. The proof is nowhere more powerfully demonstrated than in the facts presented in this case, Swinton v. Potomac. Mr. Swinton was the only African-American of approximately 140 employees. Swinton, 270 F.3d at 799. At the workplace there were jokes about a wide variety of ethnic groups, including whites, Asians, Polish people, gays, Jews, and Hispanics. A co-worker testified that the majority of the people at U.S. Mat had actually witnessed the use of racially offensive language, and another employee testified that “just about everybody” at U.S. Mat had heard “racial slurs and comments.” Id. at 800. During the short time he was at U.S. Mat, Swinton heard the term “nigger” more than fifty times. Id. Swinton’s immediate superior as supervisor of the shipping department, witnessed the telling of racial jokes and laughed along. The supervisor also acknowledged making “racial jokes or a slur” two or three times. The supervisor also overheard one of the two plant managers make racial jokes on several occasions. The supervisor further admitted that although he had an obligation under company policy to report the racial harassment, he never made any such report and never told anyone to stop making such jokes. Id. at 799-800. Some of the racial “jokes” included: “What do you call a transparent man in a ditch? A nigger with the shit kicked out of him. Why don’t black people like aspirin? Because they’re white, and they work. Did you ever see a black man on ‘The Jetsons’? Isn’t it beautiful what the future looks like? Reference to ‘Pontiac’ as an acronym for ‘Poor old nigger thinks it’s a Cadillac.’ Id. at 799. “The jokes and comments ranged from numerous references to Swinton as a ‘Zulu Warrior’ to a comment in the food line, ‘They don’t sell watermelons on that truck, you know, how about a 40-ouncer?’ On the subject of Swinton’s broken-down car, it was suggested why don’t you get behind it and push it and call it black power and why don’t you just jack a car. You’re all good at that.” Id. at 800. The “jokes” and slurs started the day Swinton began to work for the defendant, and didn’t stop until the day six months later he left in disgust.
The civil justice system provides an opportunity for the jury to dispense social justice for the victim of bigotry and to fulfill the purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1866; the elimination of the vestiges of slavery. Plaintiff’s counsel can explain to the jury that their verdict will help fulfill the purpose of this 140 year old civil rights statute, and give it contemporary meaning and vitality.
Many civil rights cases involve wrongful discharge from employment. For the purpose of compensatory damages, the appropriate focus is the injury to victim, including the economic hardship created and the emotional distress associated with being unemployed for a prolonged and continuing period. For the purpose of punitive damages, however, it is important to maintain a focus on the broader social issues involved. We need the contribution everyone is capable of making so that we can actualize our potential as a society. We can’t afford to exclude people from the workplace. In employment discrimination cases, the damage is not limited to the injury and social injustice suffered by the employee, it extends to the broader society which is deprived of the contribution the employee is capable of making. The jury must be made aware that punitive damages are intended to prevent future civil rights violations and to redress the injury suffered by the broader society.
The focus of Swinton v. Potomac was racial harassment. But these principles apply with equal force to other protected classifications. President Franklin Roosevelt was disabled! He spent the most productive years of his life in a wheel chair. Its hard to imagine what American society would be like without his contribution. Statistics appearing in the Congressional History of the American with Disabilities Act can be utilized to demonstrate the need for reasonable accommodation, not only so the disabled person can live with dignity, but also so that society can reap the benefits of his or her contribution.
Shirley Chisholm was the first female African American representative in the United States Congress. She experienced both racial and sexual discrimination. Ms. Chisholm can be quoted as saying that sexual discrimination was by far the more destructive of the two. The historical fight for women’s equal rights in many ways parallels the fight for racial equality. Historically, women could not own real property, enter into contracts or vote. African Americans got the legal right to vote before women. Counsel can explain the full meaning of dower rights, and that civil rights statutes were required so that women could work without discrimination and receive equal pay. Susan B. Anthony and other historic champions of women’s rights can be quoted liberally. Comparisons to the Taliban in Afghanistan serve to demonstrate the fundamentality of women’s rights in a free society.
Precious few jurors will deny the great value of these fundamental rights. Punitive damages in a civil rights case is just one vehicle for assessing their monetary worth.
Convincing the Judge In Kolstad v. American Dental Association, 527 U.S. 526, 119 S.Ct. 2118 (1999), the Court ruled that the controlling standard required Plaintiff to prove that the defendant acted with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual. “Applying this standard in the context of §1981a, an employer must at least discriminate in the face of a perceived risk that its actions will violate federal law to be liable in punitive damages.” Id. at 536. The Court rejected the more onerous egregious conduct standard. Id. at 538-539. The Court declined, however, to allow vicarious liability “for the discriminatory employment decisions of managerial agents where these decisions are contrary to the employer’s good faith efforts to comply with Title VII.” Id at 544.
The Court in Kolstad also established a standard for imputing punitive damages liability to a corporate wrongdoer. Without briefing, the Court adopted the Restatement (Second) of Agency and the Restatement (Second) of Torts. “Suffice it to say here that the examples provided in the Restatement of Torts suggest that an employee must be “important,” but perhaps need not be the employer’s “top management, officers, or directors,” to be acting “in a managerial capacity.” Id. at 543. “[D]etermining whether an employee meets this description [managerial capacity] requires a fact-intensive inquiry. . . .” Id. In EEOC v. Wal-Mart , 187 F.3d 1241 (10th Cir. 1999), the Tenth Circuit considered, in light of Kolstad, “the evidentiary showing required to recover punitive damages under a vicarious liability theory against an employer accused of violating the American with Disabilities Act.” Id. at 1243. In determining whether the managers had sufficient authority to impute punitive damages, the Court acknowledged that “authority to ‘hire, fire, discipline or promote, or at least to participate in or recommend such actions,’ is an indicium of supervisory or managerial capacity.” (emphasis added). Id. at 1247. Citing Miller v. Bank of America, 600 F.2d 211, 213 (9th Cir. 1979), the Court found that both the supervisor and the store manager had sufficient authority to bind the corporation for punitive damages. Id.
Applying these standards in Swinton, the Court ruled “that the inaction of even relatively low-level supervisors may be imputed to the employer if the supervisors are made responsible, pursuant to company policy, for receiving and acting on complaints of harassment.” Swinton v. Potomac Corp., 270 F.3d at 810. Citing Deters v. Equifax Credit Information Servs., Inc., 202 F.3d 1262 (10th Cir.2000), the Court in Swinton ruled that the good faith defense could not apply “because the very person the company entrusted to act on complaints of harassment failed to do so, and failed with malice or reckless disregard to the plaintiff’s federally protected rights.” Id. In addition, the existence of employment policies is not sufficient. In order to satisfy the good faith defense, employment policies must be implemented and in Swinton they were not. Id.
RemittiturIn BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 116 S.Ct. 1589 (1996), the Supreme Court established the standard for constitutionally excessive awards of punitive damages. As stated repeatedly by the Supreme Court, there is no mathematical bright line. “Only when an award can fairly be categorized as “grossly excessive” in relation to these interests [punishment and deterrence] does it enter the zone of arbitrariness that violates the Due Process Clause.” BMW, supra at 568. The Court announced three “guideposts” to assist courts in determining whether an award violates this standard: the “degree of reprehensibility” of the tortfeasor’s actions; “the disparity between the harm or potential harm suffered by [the plaintiff] and his punitive damage award”; “and the difference between this remedy and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.” Id . at 575.
In reference to reprehensibility, the Court in Swinton recognized the so called “hierarchy of reprehensibility,” with acts and threats of violence at the top, followed by acts taken in reckless disregard for others’ health and safety, affirmative acts of trickery and deceit, and finally, acts of omission and mere negligence. Id. at 818. Although the Court recognized that racial harassment is not the worst kind of tortious conduct, “in sum, we have no trouble concluding that the highly offensive language directed at Swinton, coupled by the abject failure of Potomac to combat the harassment, constitutes highly reprehensible conduct justifying a significant punitive damages award.” Id.
In reference to the ratio of compensatory damages to punitive damages, quoting BMW, the Court acknowledged, “[i]ndeed, low awards of compensatory damages may properly support a higher ratio than high compensatory awards, if, for example, a particularly egregious act has resulted in only a small amount of economic damages. A higher ratio may also be justified in cases in which the injury is hard to detect or the monetary value of non-economic harm might have been difficult to determine.” BMW at 582. Because Swinton made only $8.50 an hour, this was such a case.
For the purpose of evaluating the ratio, the Court also considered Plaintiff’s counsel’s repeated admonition to the jury “not to get carried away,” the financial asserts of the Defendant and “the harm likely to result from the defendant’s conduct as well as the harm that actually has occurred.” Swinton at 819. After comparing similar cases, the Court had no trouble in concluding that a ratio of 28:1 was not excessive. Id . at 819-820.
In reference to analogous civil penalties, the Court refused to impose the cap of $300,000 made applicable to other types of civil rights cases pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1991; 42 U.S.C. Section 1981. Id. at 820. There are no caps on punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. Section 1981.
Conclusion Punitive damages in civil rights cases are a meaningful way of promoting important social values.