It’s 2020, folks—a year that will always be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. But for some, the year also represents a time of missed opportunity given the racial divide that’s still present in our country.
Employment lawyers hear the stories almost daily, and employers must be reminded that not everyone has moved beyond our nation’s past. But if a business owner turns a “blind eye,” what are the repercussions? A Mississippi employer recently found out.
Commercial Furniture Installation, Inc. (CFI), is an office furniture installation company in the Jackson, Mississippi, area. Jackie Armagost and John Haselhorst were 50/50 partners in CFI.
Aisha T. Crump, an African-American woman, worked for CFI over the course of several different periods from December 2015 to September 2018. On April 18, 2018, Armagost called Crump and terminated her without explanation. While she was in her office packing up her things, she overheard Haselhorst tell Armagost that another CFI employee, Brenda Hollis, did not want Crump’s “black ass working here.”
Thereafter, Crump filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After Armagost learned of the filing, he asked Crump to drop the EEOC claim in return for reinstatement. She agreed and started back the following day but was relegated to a workstation in an isolated area at the bottom of a hot warehouse, which had no running water or bathroom.
When Crump tried to go to a higher floor to use the bathroom, Hollis wouldn’t open the door to allow her to enter. She could only go to the bathroom down the street, at the company’s store.
The harassment continued, and at the end of July 2018, CFI stopped putting Crump on the schedule. It continued to pay her in cash, however, until September 2018.
Crump filed a lawsuit alleging race discrimination, racial harassment, and retaliation. CFI failed to respond to the lawsuit, and a default judgment was ultimately entered against the company. An evidentiary hearing was held on December 17, 2019, to determine the damages amount.
Back pay. The court first analyzed a proper award for back pay, to which entitlement is presumed once discrimination has been established. In general, back-pay liability in a wrongful termination case commences from the time the discriminatory conduct causes economic injury and ends upon the date of the judgment. On that basis, the court found Crump was entitled to $52,012.58.
Front pay. Crump also sought front pay, an equitable remedy employed to account for future lost earnings. While reinstatement is generally preferred over front pay, the court recognized it wouldn’t be feasible to reinstate her into an environment where she experienced explicit race discrimination, retaliation, and hostility from the named partners. Thus, the court determined front pay was an appropriate alternative remedy.
Crump, age 37, had worked for CFI for around 27 months in total. She had been able to find subsequent employment, but it took her more than a year to do so, and the job paid $2.05 less per hour. Thus, the court awarded front pay for 2 years at a rate of $2.05 an hour for 40 hours a week, which amounted to $8,528.
Additional damages. The court also awarded Crump:
- $140,000 for stress and emotional hardship and $585 for medical expenses associated with three visits to a mental health therapist, all of which she claimed to be related to the issues raised in the lawsuit;
- $200,000 in punitive damages for the malice and reckless indifference exhibited by CFI;
- $20,325 in attorneys’ fees; and
- $566.65 in litigation costs.
Crump v. Commercial Furniture Installation, Inc., 19-461, 2020 WL 5869950 (S.D. Miss., Sept. 30, 2020).
The discriminatory remark and actions by CFI employees and principals led to a judgment in excess of $400,000 against the employer. In an already tumultuous time, such a judgment could have fatal consequences for a business and undoubtedly harm the affected employee. To avoid setting your organization up for similar liability, you should be proactive:
- Have policies against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and require the reporting of those actions;
- Enforce and follow the policies;
- Discipline anyone who acts in a discriminatory or retaliatory manner; and
- Require employees to undergo equal employment opportunity training on a regular basis.