$855,000 Jury Verdict Is Upheld In Race Discrimination Case Is Upheld; Retail Chain Was Guilty of “Setting Up a Demographic Situation” By Denying Black Managers Assignments to Stores in White Areas

By: Leizer Goldsmith

In case you’ve ever wondered whether it’s legal for an employer to make a point of not assigning black employees to positions in white neighborhoods, for the purpose of “matching” the “clientele mix,” a jury and judge in the District of Columbia have both answered that question with a resounding “no!”

Last February 14, the jury awarded the Plaintiff, Cynthia Williams, $75,000.00 for emotional harm because she was the victim of such a scheme, as well as an additional $650,000.00 in punitive damages. Williams also was awarded compensation for lost income. Williams had asserted that she had been the exception to the rule banning black store managers in predominantly white neighborhoods, but had been abruptly fired because of her race. The Defendant, First Cash, Inc., denied the allegations, claiming that it fired Williams because she had ceased being a “team player.” However, the jury found for Williams after hearing that the company’s human resources director, had told Williams that the chain had been “setting up a demographic situation.”

First Cash tried to get the verdict reversed or reduced, but a recent decision by the trial judge denied their efforts. Williams’ $75,000.00 award for emotional damages, which she won without the benefit of testimony from any expert doctors, was sustained by the judge because she found that a reasonable jury could determine that Williams’ emotional suffering-she testified that not a day goes by when she does not think about what happened to her-justified the award.

First Cash also argued that $650,000.00 in punitive damages-damages designed not to compensate the plaintiff, but to punish and deter future wrongdoing by the defendant-were excessive. However, the trial judge found that the jury could reasonably conclude that First Cash’s conduct was “malicious” and/or carried out with “willful disregard” for Williams’ rights. The judge also found that the amount was reasonable, since an award of $650,000.00 was not too much to punish and deter a company with net assets of $91 million.

Several aspects of this case are worthy of note for those attempting to develop a better understanding of employment discrimination law. In the area of compensatory damages, many are misinformed, believing that a medical doctor must testify in order for damages to be awarded for emotional injury. The Supreme Court held to the contrary in a case several years ago, and the First Cash case reaffirms the important principle that a jury is qualified to listen to testimony from the discrimination victim and those who know her, and determine what, if any, damages are appropriate. As for punitive damages, when companies act outrageously, they can and will be punished by juries, and fair-minded judges will permit the verdict to stand. As with compensatory damages, expert testimony is not necessary. David Cashdan, partner in the Washington, D.C. firm of Cashdan, Golden & Kane, whose partner, Vicki Golden, tried the case for Williams, reports that the evidence for punitive damages submitted to the jury was little more than the company’s annual report and related financial documents. No experts were required for the jury to determine how much punishment would be enough. The punitive award, which amounted to approximately ten percent of one year’s profit, was in no way excessive, but, hopefully, was enough to send the message that the sort of blatant racism engaged in by First Cash is intolerable in this country.

The First Cash case shows that race discrimination is still out there, but will sometimes be caught and severely punished. It is a case in which the court system appears to have reached a fair result, and earned itself some credit.

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