Posted 05-27-2014

Fifty years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it should be clear that remarks about lynching and the Ku Klux Klan have absolutely no place at work. But how can an employer protect itself from liability when such things are said by one co-worker to another?

A 2014 federal appellate case illustrates how a prompt and effective response to racist statements can prevent liability. Nadiya Williams-Boldware, who is African-American, was an Assistant DA in the Denton County (Texas) District Attorney’s Office. One day, Cary Piel, a Caucasian fellow Assistant DA and a self-described “redneck”, walked into Ms. Williams-Boldware’s office to discuss a case he was preparing for trial. The case was against an African-American woman who had drunkenly driven through and desecrated an historic cemetery, then assaulted and verbally abused the arresting officers. Mr. Piel told his colleague that the case “made him understand why people hung people from trees” and made him “want to go home and put on his pointy white hat.”

Ms. Williams-Boldware immediately told Mr. Piel that his remarks were inappropriate and upsetting and reported the incident to her supervisor. The County started an investigation within 24 hours, which resulted in a reprimand and anti-harassment training for Mr. Piel. After the reprimand and training, the racial harassment stopped and did not reoccur. (Several years later, Mr. Piel was fired, according to news reports).

Ms. Williams-Boldware sued and won a $510,000 jury verdict, but that victory was short-lived. A federal appeals court reversed the verdict and absolved the County of liability, because it “took seriously Williams-Boldware’s complaints and its remedial efforts effectively halted the harassing conduct of which she complained.” Williams-Boldware v. Denton Co., 741 F.3d 635 (5th Cir. 2014)

What this means to you:

No employer can totally prevent employees from saying and doing hurtful, even hateful, things that make life miserable for co-workers. But employers can and should take immediate action to investigate and remedy any such incidents.

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.