“Who’s in Charge Here?” Asks Appeals Court in $1M Harassment Case

Posted 02-17-2014

The opening of a recent federal appeals court opinion is startling: “The facts of this case should greatly concern every taxpaying citizen of the State of Alabama, especially because it involves a public institution largely funded with tax dollars paid by the people of Alabama.”  The court went on to uphold jury verdicts totaling more than $1 million made to three black or biracial employees of Alabama State University whose African-American supervisors, one of whom was not only acting president but also a member of the Alabama Legislature, repeatedly used the n-word, subjected them to sexual harassment, then fired two of them after they complained to Human Resources.

As the 11th Circuit recounted the facts of the case, it felt compelled to “apologize for the offensive and demeaning language contained in this opinion, but such language comes directly from the trial record.”  The three employees were repeatedly called “bitch” and “n*****”, and told by the acting president that “no one was to speak with EEOC and that if they did, they would be dealt with. Terminated.”  The other supervisor, who was female, called one employee’s breasts “melons” and her buttocks “hams”, rubbed up against her repeatedly, and told her she should strip to show off her tattoos.  The same supervisor called the employee’s 7-year-old son a “n*****”,  ‘upsetting him so much that he crawled under his mother’s desk and curled up in the fetal position.’

If that weren’t bad enough for ASU, its lawyers bumbled the appeal by submitting incorrect pleadings, violating court rules, and waiting until three or four minutes before the midnight deadline to start the electronic filing process, which was not concluded until 12:00:46 the next morning.  Too late, said the appeals court:  “[W]e are troubled by ASU’s attorneys’ inability to adhere to court procedures and deadlines.  Timeliness is imperative in the practice of law, and attorneys should not expect sympathy from this court due to their own carelessness.”

“We are left to wonder who is in charge at ASU,” the opinion concluded.  “Regardless, however, we are unnerved by the apparent acquiescence to, if not outright condoning of, the abusive work environment created by its high-level employees.  Such conduct simply has no place in a work environment, especially at a publicly funded university.” Weatherly v. Alabama State University, (11th Cir. 2013)

What this means to you:

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race and gender, the United States is still struggling to live up to its ideals and obligations.  In 2013, there were 93,727 claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including 8,519 racial harassment charges and 7,256 sexual harassment charges.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.

2015-06-12T22:08:39+00:00

About the Author:

Ann Kiernan has litigated claims of wrongful discharge and discrimination before state and federal courts and administrative matters before the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, representing both employers and employees. Ms. Kiernan co-hosted The Employee Rights Forum, a weekly radio call-in show reaching up to a half-million listeners in the New York metropolitan area, and her articles on employment law have been published in many books and magazines. Both as a firm partner and as a director, Ms. Kiernan gained solid experience in management and human resources compliance. She has worked with Fair Measures since 1997.