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Bryant v. Jeffrey Sand Co., No. 18-2297 (8th Cir. Mar. 18, 2019)

The Eighth Circuit affirms a $250,001 judgment - $1 compensatory and $250,000 punitive damages - for a black "deckhand on the Cora, a barge that dredges sand from the Arkansas River," whom a jury found suffered a racially hostile work environment caused by his foreman.

Bryant v. Jeffrey Sand Co., No. 18-2297 (8th Cir. Mar. 18, 2019): The panel summarized the evidence -

The evidence at trial revealed that Skaggs, Bryant's direct supervisor, engaged in a pattern of racially-motivated abuse. Skaggs taunted Bryant with racial slurs, calling him 'nigger,' 'Kunte Kinte,' 'spear chucker,' 'monkey,' 'bitch,' 'porch monkey,' and 'boy,' among other names. On at least some occasions, he uttered these epithets in the presence of other employees. Skaggs would give Bryant difficult tasks that he would not assign to the Cora's white employees. Lambert testified that 'a number of times,' Skaggs would 'get up in [Bryant's] face and use his chest to push [Bryant] around trying to get [Bryant] to fight him.'"

The harassment peaked when Skaggs required Bryant to paint in the hot sun without drinking water or breaks. Bryant collapsed from a heart attack and had to be hospitalized.

Bryant's complaints to the plant manager and even the company president yielded no response. The company lacked an anti-harassment policy. At one point, the plant manager sent an employee to observe Skaggs, but when the employee reported not hearing anything, that was essentially the end of it. A coworker also anonymously corroborated the harassment. 

A jury hearing this evidence awarded plaintiff - under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 - $1.00 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages; the judge added roughly $65,000 in attorney's fees and costs.

The Eighth Circuit affirms. It holds first that there was sufficient evidence of the employer's malice or reckless indifference to support punitive damages under § 1981, taking particular note that the employer never troubled to interview Bryant. "Those supervisors never interviewed Bryant in response to his complaints, even though Skaggs's comments evidenced a 'clear intent' to discriminate against Bryant based on race."

It also holds that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that the harassment continued into the four-year limitations period for § 1981 claims, including the overwork incident that led to the heart attack.

The panel then evaluates the amount of punitive damages. It affirms the district court's finding that the employer's behavior was reprehensible enough to support the verdict.

"Skaggs's abuse was repeated, not isolated, and involved both verbal racist insults and physical altercations. His actions were not accidental but intentionally malicious. Jeffrey Sand failed to meaningfully investigate repeated complaints from Bryant and other employees. The district court also concluded that Bryant was financially vulnerable because he had a criminal record and so could not easily find another job ....

"In particular, Skaggs's verbal and physical abuse went unchecked even after another employee corroborated Bryant's allegations, and even after Skaggs placed Bryant at risk of serious injury."

The panel also concludes that the amount was proportional to the violation, despite the jury's nominal $1 award, and that it was within range of what other courts have approved under similar circumstances. "Considering the egregiousness of Jeffrey Sand's conduct, the company should have been aware that the trial could result in a substantial monetary award if the jury concluded that one was 'necessary to deter future misconduct.'" Finally, the panel affirms the award of fees and costs in full.

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