Management Use of Stereotypes Leads to $1.4 Million in Emotional Distress Damages

Two latino businessmen

Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas are brothers who worked for Wentworth Property Management Corporation. Ramon was hired as a regional vice president, the only one of Hispanic descent. Six months later, Jeffrey was brought on as a portfolio manager; 18 months after that, Jeffrey was promoted to executive director.

Despite their executive positions, the Cuevas brothers encountered discrimination and a hostile work environment from upper management. For example, when lunch was served, the executive vice president and others would comment about the lack of Mexican restaurants in the area and the inability to get burritos or tacos. When Ramon talked about his cat, someone quipped, “I figured you had a little Taco Bell Chihuahua dog.” At a meeting when music was played, someone interjected, “Do you think we could get a little Mariachi or salsa music in the background — something a little more to Ramon’s taste?” The brothers were called “the two Chihuahuas” and “the Rico Suave brothers.” The HR director referred to them as “Latin lovers.”

At one meeting at a restaurant, one Wentworth exec joked that a Hispanic busboy looked like Ramon’s twin brother, and the EVP stated that if he did not pick up the check, “Ramon can join his father [in the back] and you guys can wash dishes.” Sometimes, Ramon would offer a comeback line, such as “My dad happens to have his own business, but if you need help with the check, I have my credit card.” On some occasions, however, he did not want to sound defensive and said nothing; on other occasions, he said, “Enough.”

But the abusive conduct continued. When Ramon came to the office explaining that he had to fix a flat tire, someone suggested that if a “Puerto Rican” were observed with a crowbar kneeling by a car, he might be mistaken as “trying to steal the car or the hubcaps.” Two former property managers for Wentworth testified that the EVP said that they would be safe in bad neighborhoods when accompanied by Ramon because “he’s one of them” and because he was “Spanish.”

Jeffrey went to Wentworth’s in-house counsel and complained about the treatment he and his brother had been receiving. But the lawyer told him to calm down, that the remarks were “good-natured ribbing”, not “that big a deal”, and should not be taken “so seriously”. Jeffrey made it clear that he and his brother did take the matter seriously and wanted the harassing behavior to end, and warned, “I’d really rather not have to take this to the next level.”

Four days later, Jeffrey was fired. Shocked, Jeffrey protested that he had been awarded a $10,000 performance-based raise just four weeks earlier. The EVP replied that the company was going in a different direction and ordered him to clear out his desk and leave the premises immediately. Ramon was stupefied to learn of his brother s firing, and called Wentworth’s CEO to complain.

Three weeks after that, on New Year’s Day, Ramon received a telephone call from the EVP, who said that they needed to meet at a highway rest area. Ramon dutifully drove there, where he was met by the EVP and a Wentworth associate. The EVP walked up to Ramon and handed him an envelope, saying not to “bother sitting down, you’re terminated.” The letter indicated that Ramon was fired for losing five accounts and for soliciting a kickback from one of Wentworth s vendors. Ramon denied any involvement in a kickback scheme and indicated he had never received a reprimand while employed at Wentworth.

The Cuevas brothers sued for racial discrimination and harassment. After a trial, the jury awarded Ramon more than $1 million in lost wages, $800,000 in emotional distress damages, and $52,500 in punitive damages. Jeffrey was awarded $150,000 in lost wages, $600,000 in emotional distress damages and $32,500 in punitive damages. Wentworth asked the trial court to reduce the emotional distress damages awards, arguing they were excessive, since the brothers had never sought medical or psychological treatment.

But a state supreme court refused, and affirmed the jury verdict in a 2016 decision, noting that the brothers had detailed in their testimony a nine-month period of racial harassment and hostility, carried out by and in the presence of the highest-ranking officers of Wentworth. Ramon testified that he felt chopped down day by day, month by month, helpless, despondent, and exhausted. He was beset by anxiety over his financial security and his professional reputation, particularly after the retaliatory firing. Jeffrey described how humiliated he was to be fired several weeks before Christmas for complaining about discriminatory treatment, how his self-confidence had been ruined, how anxious he became about whether he could support his family, and how he fell into a depression. Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, 226 N.J. 480 (2016)

What this means to you: Of course, 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. This employer’s callous attitude and failure to take the Cuevas brothers’ complaints seriously cost it a lot of time and a lot of money, and resulted in a permanent public record of the disgraceful conduct of its upper management.

To find out more about our employment law training, harassment prevention training programs, or one-on-one sessions for an executive who should know better (but doesn’t!) please call 800-458-2778.

Posted 03-15-2017

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.

2017-03-15T16:31:51+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.