The taunts of “boy” and “monkey” still loom large in Elijah Turley’s race discrimination case.
So does the “dancing gorilla” sign hung near his work station, and the “KKK” spelled out on a nearby wall.
A federal judge pointed to those “loathsome” incidents of racial harassment in ruling that the former Lackawanna steelworker is entitled to $6 million in damages from his former employers.
“The unyielding harassment took its toll,” Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny said of Turley. “And by the time he left, he was broken and dispirited.”
Skretny, in a recent decision, reduced the $25 million that a jury awarded Turley after a three-week trial last year.
But, for the most part, he upheld the jury’s determination that Turley’s former employers were liable for a culture of racial discrimination that existed at the steel plant.
Citing “reprehensible” conduct, the judge pointed to several incidents of racial harassment, including offensive name-calling, monkey sounds broadcast over a public address system and a co-worker’s threats against Turley’s life.
“The overt racist harassment lasted for more than three years,” Skretny said in his decision. “It did not improve with time; it escalated. Investigations were feeble and perfunctory; responses were cursory.”
Skretny’s decision is the result of the defendants’ request for a new trial and its contention that the original jury verdict was excessive given evidence in the case.
Turley, a processor operator in the pickler department, started at the plant in 1995 when it was still Bethlehem Steel, and remained there after it was sold to ISG Lackawanna Inc. in 2003 and Arcelor-Mittal USA in 2005. He was laid off when the plant closed in April 2009.
Arcelor-Mittal, a global steelmaking giant based in Luxembourg, and the other defendants now have the option of accepting Skretny’s decision or appealing.
“On behalf of all defendants, we are encouraged that the court addressed some of the problems with the jury’s verdict,” the company said in a statement, “and we are analyzing our options for appeal with respect to the remaining problems.”
Turley has agreed to accept the lower damages amount.
“We believe the revised award will still function to punish and deter defendants, while being permissible under the law,” Ryan J. Mills, one of Turley’s lawyers, said in a statement. “We sincerely hope this case will operate as a reminder to employers to constantly re-evaluate how employees are treated and what kind of work environment society will not tolerate.”
The jury’s original award of $25 million followed a three-week trial at which Turley, an African-American, testified about a series of incidents during his time working at the steel plant.
Turley testified that the incidents from 2005 to 2008 left him a physical and emotional wreck and forever changed his life.
“This is not a case where a black employee was simply passed over for a promotion, terminated out of bias, or retaliated against for making a complaint,” Skretny said in his decision. “Nor is this a single incident of racial insensitivity or discrimination.
“Turley was instead made to suffer daily ignominies and outrageous abuses,” the judge said. “Testimony revealed that Turley, once a proud and animated athlete, was rendered a mere shell of the man he once was.”
The original jury found the corporate defendants liable for all but a small percentage of the $25 million award, the overwhelming share of which were punitive damages intended to either punish the company or deter it from engaging in similar conduct.
Skretny reduced the punitive damages from $24 million to $5 million but kept intact the $1.3 million in compensatory damages. He also awarded $432,000 in attorney fees to Turley’s lawyers.
In reducing the punitive damages, the judge acknowledged that Arcelor-Mittal and the other corporate defendants were not solely to blame for what Turley endured.
He also acknowledged that some steps were taken to reform the plant’s “racist” environment and pointed to the hiring of a private investigator, the installation of security cameras and the suspension of employees involved.
During the trial, lawyers for Arcelor-Mittal admitted that many of the incidents happened but argued that the company and its executives were caught in the middle.
They also suggested that much of what happened at the steel plant is the kind of “trash-talking” that’s common in manufacturing facilities.
Turley’s lawyers told a far different story and suggested that company officials fell far short of what they needed to do to protect Turley.
They specifically pointed to former Labor Relations Manager Larry D. Sampsell, former Human Resources Manager Gerald C. Marchand and the former manager of the pickler department, Thomas Jaworski, all of whom were found liable in the case.
In the end, Skretny also found them responsible.
“The defendants themselves were not simply bystanders,” he said. “Defendant Jaworski repeatedly called Turley ‘boy.’ When Turley told him about the ‘KK’ graffiti, his response, according to Turley, was to laugh and tell Turley to ‘go get a can of paint and paint it yourself.’
“Sampsell, too, laughed off the ‘KK’ as horseplay,” the judge said. “When Turley complained, Sampsell callously told Turley that ‘King Kong’ was a good movie and that he should go see it.”
The defendants have until later this month to accept or appeal Skretny’s decision.