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Federal Court Upholds $100,000 Jury Award to Lesbian Plaintiff Against United Parcel Service (UPS)

Posted on: July 28th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

Rejecting motions to set aside the jury verdict, order a new trial or reduce damages, U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein upheld a federal jury’s award of $100,000 in damages to Tameeka Roberts, an employee at the United Parcel Service facility in Maspeth, Queens, who complained that the company had tolerated a hostile environment created by her supervisor and had retaliated against her when she pressed her complaint to the New York State Division of Human Rights.  Roberts v. United Parcel Service, 2015 WL 4509994 (E.D.N.Y., July 27, 2015).

According to Judge Weinstein’s opinion, Ms. Roberts lives with her wife and three sons in New Jersey.  She began working for UPS in 1995 and has had about twenty different supervisors over the past twenty years.  Her “problem” supervisor whose conduct led to this lawsuit was Donald Woodard, a “full-time area coordinator” who supervised Roberts in 2007 and 2008, and then again from 2010 through 2012, when an incident in which Ms. Roberts was seriously injured at work attributable to misconduct by Woodard led to his assignment to a different facility.

Roberts’ problems with Woodard began in 2007 after she complained to Woodard about a denigrating comment he made to her about another lesbian employee.  “The next day,” wrote Weinstein, “Woodard brought his Bible to work and ‘showed [Roberts] where [the Bible] says that being a lesbian is wrong.’  He told her ‘It goes against the Bible…. It’s a sin.'”  Woodard admitted making these comments in his trial testimony.  Roberts complained to her shop steward and the head of security, but apparently nothing happened in response to her complaint.  “During the rest of 2007,” wrote Weinstein, “Woodard repeatedly told plaintiff that ‘being a lesbian is wrong’ and that she was ‘going to hell.'”  Woodard made these comments in the hearing of other workers, and told a co-worker not to “hang out” with Roberts because “she’s not living right. She had demons.  She doesn’t know who she is.”  Roberts complained to Woodard, telling him “this is not church” and “making comments about me being a lesbian is wrong.”  Woodard’s comments continued similarly during 2008.  Roberts would try to avoid confrontation by walking away or telling him to “leave me alone.”

The problem ceased in 2009 when Woodard stopped working at the Maspeth facility, but he returned as Roberts’ supervisor in 2010 and his comments resumed along the same lines.  Woodard again complained to a union shop steward, but nothing changed.  Woodard told Roberts that “two women being married is not natural,” that “being a lesbian is wrong,” that she was “going to hell” and she needed to “change” her “life, the style, the way” she was living.  She repeatedly complained to the shop steward.  In 2011, Roberts testified, Woodard threatened to take a photo of her with a married male co-worker and send it to the co-worker’s wife, as if to suggest they were having an affair.  Roberts reported this to her night manager and her shop steward.  The manager told her “do not go to corporate” with this complaint, because “I will handle the situation.”  Woodard’s comments then stopped for a while, but in the late summer of 2012 he got started up again, and Roberts renewed her complaints to the shop stewards, who finally brought her to Human Resources, where, apparently, nothing happened.

What finally seemed to get the company’s attention was a call Roberts made on October 23, 2012, to the UPS Corporate Concerns hotline, anonymously.  She identified herself as gay and said she felt “intimidated” and “harassed” because Mr. Woodard engages in “religious rants at the job” and makes “derogatory comments about gays.”  A few days  later, Roberts met with the local HR representative, a manager, and her shop steward, and an investigation of Woodard was launched.  However, the HR representative just cautioned Woodard that “religion has no place in the workplace” but took no other action.  Woodard stopped making his comments to Roberts, but she felt the company should have done more, so she sent a letter to corporate headquarters in Atlanta, claiming she was being harassed by Woodard and felt threatened, harassed and stressed because of “this situation.”  She asked, “Why is Donald Woodard allowed to Harass, Gay Bash and verbal abuse [sic] his employees and still be employed at United Parcel Service?”

The letter led UPS to open a second investigation, this time by the UPS Human Resources Operations Manager for the District, Beverly Riddick.  She met with Roberts for half an hour and told her that UPS was taking her complaint “very seriously.”  Riddick met with Woodard, but, according to the trial testimony, although Riddick learned that Roberts’ factual allegations were apparently true, Riddick did not believe that Woodward’s comments violated the law or company policy but were merely “inappropriate.”  “Woodard was not told to desist,” wrote Weinstein.  Riddick also interviewed the shop steward and two of Roberts’ co-workers.  Although these interviews also confirmed Roberts’ allegations about Woodard’s conduct, Riddick concluded that Woodard’s statements did not constitute discrimination or harassment, and so she testified at trial.

When Roberts ask her shop steward about the status of the investigation, he told her that her complaints were “probably unfounded” as Woodward was still supervising her.  Shortly after this, Roberts got permission from her immediate supervisors to miss work for a day in order to appear in traffic court and this was noted on her time card. But when she returned the next day, her time card indicated she was absent without calling.  She became convinced that Woodard had altered the time card, although he denied doing so.  UPS terminated its second investigation.  Woodard was not given any written warning and was left in place supervising Roberts, but senior management decided he should be transferred eventually to another facility and would be required to review UPS policies and to complete “two written statements,” which are not described in the court’s opinion.

When she learned about the outcome of the investigation, Roberts filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights early in December 2012.  She informed her shop stewards and union delegate about filing the complaint.  Soon after, she suffered injuries when a number of packages feel and hit her face, shoulder, arm and hand.  “She looked up and saw Woodard above her,” wrote Judge Weinstein.  “He was attempting a UPS procedure called ‘breaking the jam,’ but he had not followed safety protocol, which required notifying everyone in the area and stopping the conveyor belt.”  Roberts ended up missing weeks of work while tending to her injuries.  She wrote again to the NYS Division of Human Rights, “stressing the adverse impact this and other incidents had on her health.”  Woodard received no discipline from UPS for violating work rules but was transferred to another facility in January 2013.  Roberts was unable to return to work until mid-February.

Her lawsuit relied on the N.Y.C. Human Rights Ordinance, which provides greater protection for employees than the state or federal employment discrimination laws as a result of an amendment passed in 2005 called the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act.  Responding to evidence that state and federal courts were not providing adequate protection against discrimination for employees, the City Council determined to make it clear that interpretation of the city ordinance should not be limited by those federal and state law interpretations.  “The provisions of this title shall be construed liberally for the accomplishment of the uniquely broad and remedial purposes thereof, regardless of whether federal or New York State civil rights laws, including those laws with provisions comparably-worded to provision of this title, have been so construed,” says the 2005 amendment.  This amendment is crucial to the outcome of Roberts’ case, since it is possible that under state and federal precedents, UPS might have been entitled to have some or all of her charges dismissed. Most importantly, New York City precedents make it easier for an employee to prove a hostile environment claim and to challenge employer retaliation.

Judge Weinstein devoted a substantial part of his opinion to a detailed overview of the history of anti-gay discrimination in the United States, quoting extensively from briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent marriage equality case, Obergefell v. Hodges.  He also quoted at length from a decision issued by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, explaining why anti-gay discrimination violates the federal ban on sex discrimination.  It is not clear why the judge included this material in his opinion, since the case was brought under the  NYC Human Rights Ordinance, but he seemed to determine to provide substantial support for the conclusion that gay people have suffered substantial discrimination in the past that needs to be redressed under civil rights laws.

The jury concluded that Roberts proved she was subjected to a hostile environment because she is a lesbian, and that she suffered retaliation after she complained both internally and to the civil rights agency.  The jury determined to award her compensatory damages of $25,000 for each claim and punitive damages of $25,000 for each claim, totaling $100,000, as well as awarding her the costs of her litigation.  UPS had filed pretrial motions seeking to get the case dismissed, and renewed its motions post-trial, arguing that Roberts had failed to prove a violation of the law and was not entitled to the damages.  Weinstein rejected these contentions out of hand.

Weinstein quoted the “guiding principles” that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit (based in Manhattan) had summarized for analyzing claims of discrimination and retaliation under the NYC Human Rights Law and then used those principles explicitly to refute every argument UPS made.

“Defendant argues that plaintiff fails to make a prima facie case of hostile work environment because she presents only ‘petty slights and trivial inconveniences,'” he wrote.  “To the contrary, Woodard’s continuing discriminatory comments about plaintiff’s sexual orientation, made over a number of years, show adverse differential treatment.  So too do the significant failures of supervisors to protect plaintiff against discrimination.  There was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that a reasonable person — who repeatedly was the target of such comments as plaintiff and repeatedly complained but found no recourse — would consider the comments more than a trivial inconvenience.”  Weinstein had noted that because of the more protective interpretation required for claims under the City’s ordinance, this case, which might not have sufficed for a hostile environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, clearly qualified.

As to the retaliation claim, Weinstein wrote, “Retaliation may be subtle and hidden and can be hard to prove.  Juries are therefore given more leeway in finding retaliation than in finding discrimination. The jury had ample grounds to find retaliation likely to deter a worker from complaining of abuse.  Woodard and the defendant’s deliberate adverse conduct – the jury could have found – would likely deter a person from engaging in plaintiff’s protected activity (identifying as a lesbian).  First, not only did Woodard harass plaintiff over a course of approximately six years, but he harassed her after she complained repeatedly, to her supervisors and to him, of his ongoing adverse conduct.  Second, the jury could find that shortly after the second investigation, plaintiff’s time card was changed by Woodard as a punishment for protesting.  Third, the jury could find plaintiff was hit with packages by Woodard in retaliation. Fourth, it could find that defendant’s decision to allow Woodard to supervisor plaintiff after her repeated complaints demonstrated so much disdain by management as to itself constitute retaliation.  Fifth, Riddick’s investigation yielded no tangible results, despite substantial evidence of harassment; this know-nothing attitude was itself a form of retaliation by an implied expression of contempt for plaintiff’s complaints.”

In short, Weinstein really threw the book at UPS!

He was equally dismissive of UPS’s claim that the damages awarded by the jury were excessive.  $25,000 per claim for compensatory damages and $25,000 per claim for punitive damages struck Weinstein as “modest” and “well within an acceptable reasonable range.”  As to the punitive damages, UPS had the gall to argue that Roberts had not shown that the company acted with “malice” or “reckless indifference.”  “To the contrary,” wrote Weinstein, “plaintiff demonstrated sufficiently for a jury finding that defendant acted with reckless indifference to her multiple complaints of sexual orientation discrimination over many years.  UPS was anything but prompt.  By 2012, when Riddick, a high-level manager for defendant, conducted an investigation, she determined, contrary to overwhelming evidence of discrimination, that no discrimination had occurred.  She did not discipline Woodard in any meaningful fashion and allowed him to continue supervising plaintiff for a short period.”

Finally, Weinstein concluded, “Even if plaintiff failed to demonstrate that defendant retaliated because of her complaints by altering her time card and by failing to provide a safe working environment for plaintiff, there was sufficient proof of retaliation in central administration’s cavalier attitude towards plaintiff’s serious charges of harassment.”  Thus, she was entitled to punitive damages “as a matter of law” and “the modest award of each claim was appropriate in light of the evidence before the jury.”  Weinstein rejected the motion to set aside the verdict, the motion for a new trial, and the motion to reduce damages.

UPS could attempt to appeal this to the 2nd Circuit, but Judge Weinstein was careful to emphasize the 2nd Circuit’s own guidelines for evaluating such claims and to provide extensive sections of the trial testimony to show that the jury had a strong evidentiary basis for its verdict.  Also, his characterization of the damages as “modest” seems correct, in light of larger damage awards he noted in other cases.  This looks like a verdict that is likely to withstand appeal.

Tameeka Roberts is represented by Alex Umansky, Jessenia Maldonado, Phillips & Associates, PLLC, and Casimir Joseph Wolnowski, New York attorneys.  UPS retained suburban counsel from New Jersey.  Perhaps they were not too concerned about this case, but Weinstein’s strongly worded opinion is calculated to wake them up!  Perhaps some heads need to roll in the UPS Human Resources Department after a judge determines that they have a “cavalier attitude” about unlawful discrimination.