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Punitive damages reinstated in racial discrimination case

Recently, a federal appeals court reinstated $3.5 million in punitive damages awarded by a jury to an employee of a Chrysler plant in Illinois in a racial discrimination case.

The employee was a pipefitter of Cuban heritage. He was the victim of racist and xenophobic graffiti, as well as death threats between 2002 and 2005, according to his complaint for employment discrimination. A jury agreed with the employee and awarded him $709,000 in compensatory damages and $3.5 million in punitive damages, but the trial court vacated the jury's award. The employee agreed to reduce the compensatory damages to $300,000 and appealed the punitive damages to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate court ruled that Chrysler did not respond 'promptly and adequately' in the first year after the man filed a complaint. The company only had a meeting and met with the employee, in addition to hiring a forensic document examiner in that year. The court noted that Chrysler did not interview the suspects named by the employee or install a surveillance camera as he requested. Instead the company suggested the employee was the source of his own harassment during those three years.

The court stated, "Chrysler's long-term recklessness in the face of repeated threats of violence against the [employee] and his family is sufficiently reprehensible" to support the punitive damages award.

Like Illinois, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, an employee in Minnesota cannot be treated differently based on the employee's race, color, creed or national origin, including harassment by co-workers. Race, color and national origin are considered protected classes under these laws alongside religion, sex and disability.

Source: Business Insurance, "Jury award of $3.5M reinstated in Chrysler discrimination case," Judy Greenwald, August 23, 2012

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