270 F.3d 794 (9th Cir. 2001), 99-36147, Swinton v. Potomac Corp.
|Citation:||270 F.3d 794|
|Party Name:||TROY SWINTON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, v. POTOMAC CORPORATION, DBA CRESCENT CARDBOARD COMPANY, DBA CRESCENT/U.S. MAT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.|
|Case Date:||January 09, 2001|
|Court:||United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit|
Submission Withdrawn Resubmitted October 24, 2001
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Thomas Sullivan (argued), Jenner & Block, Chicago, Illinois, Richard R. Winter, Sarah E. Pace (on the brief), McBride Baker & Coles, Chicago, Illinois, for the defendant/appellant.
Jeffrey Needle, Law Office of Jeffrey Needle, Seattle, Washington, for the plaintiff/appellee.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington; Jack E. Tanner, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-97-01399-JET
Before: McKeown, W. Fletcher, and Rawlinson, Circuit Judges.
McKEOWN, Circuit Judge:
This case should serve as a reminder to employers of their obligation to keep their workplaces free of discriminatory harassment. Although much of what happened here was characterized as "jokes," neither the discrimination nor the jury verdict is a laughing matter. Troy Swinton, a worker in the shipping department of a cardboard company, was subject to repeated "jokes" by co-workers featuring use of the word "nigger" and to a continuing stream of racial slurs. He sued his former employer for racial harassment under federal and state anti-discrimination statutes, and a jury awarded him $5,612 in back pay, $30,000 for emotional distress, and $1,000,000 in punitive damages. The employer's claims on appeal fall into three categories. First, the employer asserts that the district court's failure to instruct the jury as to an affirmative defense under Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998) and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), as applied to a negligence theory of employer liability, warrants a new trial. Second, it alleges a variety of evidentiary and instructional errors. Finally, the employer argues that punitive damages were either unwarranted as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, constitutionally excessive under BMW of N. Am. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996). We affirm both the liability determination and the award of punitive damages.
Troy Swinton was employed in the shipping department of U.S. Mat between August 1996 and February 1997. He was the only African-American of approximately 140 employees of the Woodinville, Washington company, which manufactures cardboard matting used in picture frames. Shortly before Swinton was hired, the company was acquired by the Chicago-based Potomac Corporation.
Swinton became aware of U.S. Mat through his fiancee, whose uncle, Jon Fosdick, worked there as supervisor in the bevel-cutting department. Swinton listed Fosdick as a reference on his job application. Fosdick would often stop by the shipping department. While there, he would regularly tell racially offensive jokes in the presence of Swinton and others. Among the "jokes":
What do you call a transparent man in a ditch? A nigger with the shit kicked out of him.
Why don't black people like aspirin? Because they're white, and they work.
Did you ever see a black man on "The Jetsons"? Isn't it beautiful what the future looks like?
Reference to "Pontiac" as an acronym for "Poor old nigger thinks it's a Cadillac."
According to Swinton, Fosdick began telling such jokes soon after he arrived at the company and continued "whenever he felt like it, all the time."
Pat Stewart, Swinton's immediate superior as supervisor of the shipping department, witnessed Fosdick telling racial jokes and laughed along. Swinton testified that Stewart "was present at the table most of the time when [Fosdick] was coming in and saying this [the racial jokes]. " Stewart also acknowledged making "racial jokes or a slur" two or three times, though it is not clear from his testimony whether such conduct occurred in Swinton's presence. Stewart also overheard one of the two plant managers make racial jokes on several occasions. Stewart admitted that
although he had an obligation under company policy to report the racial harassment, he never made any such report and never told Fosdick or anybody else to stop making such jokes.
Though Fosdick was the main perpetrator of the jokes, Swinton's co-workers also told racially offensive jokes in his presence, and those comments were witnessed by several co-workers. The jokes and comments ranged from numerous references to Swinton as a "Zulu Warrior" to a comment in the food line, "They don't sell watermelons on that truck, you know, how about a 40-ouncer?" On the subject of Swinton's broken-down car, it was suggested "why don't you get behind it and push it and call it black power" and "why don't you just jack a car. You're all good at that."
Testimony by co-workers underscored the ubiquity of the racist atmosphere at U.S. Mat. One co-worker said that there were jokes about a wide variety of ethnic groups, including whites, Asians, Polish people, gays, Jews, and Hispanics. Another testified that the majority of the people at U.S. Mat had actually witnessed the use of racially offensive language, and a third employee testified that "just about everybody" at U.S. Mat had heard Fosdick use "racial slurs and comments."1 During the short time he was at U.S. Mat, Swinton heard the term "nigger" more than fifty times.
Swinton's reactions to the racially derogatory comments included glaring and walking away, and remarking to co-workers that the jokes were "f***ed up." Swinton testified that he did not directly ask Fosdick to stop because he knew that Fosdick regularly carried a .22 caliber pistol in his back pocket.
Despite Fosdick's regular use of racially offensive langauge, Swinton and Fosdick socialized both at work and outside of work. Swinton claimed that he socialized with Fosdick not because he enjoyed doing so, but only at the urging of his fiancee (Fosdick's niece), to maintain harmonious family relations.
Swinton testified that he did not immediately quit in the face of the racial comments because he needed the job to support himself and his fiancee, who was pregnant. He eventually quit on February 27, 1997, stating in his testimony that he was "fed up . . . with all the name-calling. I was angry. I was mad. I was upset. I was frustrated. I just couldn't take it no more. I had to get out of there." Potomac's theory explaining why Swinton quit and brought suit centers around an alleged breakdown in family relations. According to Potomac, Swinton brought suit as a means to retaliate against Fosdick because of comments that Fosdick's wife purportedly made about Swinton and his fiancee.
Upon commencing employment at U.S. Mat, Swinton was presented with an employee manual. Swinton testified alternately that he "read" and "browsed through " the manual; he did sign a form acknowledging that he received it. The employee manual included the following language:
If you believe you are being harassed by co-workers or others, notify your Supervisor. If you believe you are being harassed by your Supervisor, or if this is otherwise inappropriate, notify the President. No employee will be retaliated against in any way for making a factually supported claim of harassment.
Swinton never availed himself of any formal internal complaint procedures. He advanced several reasons. According to Swinton, the "Supervisor" to whom he was supposed to direct his complaint was Pat Stewart, who had already witnessed the joke-telling and had actually "laugh[ed] along." Swinton claimed that he did not know the identity of the "President" (whom the manual identified as an alternative complaint recipient), and thus did not bring the harassment to his attention. Swinton also feared Fosdick, whom he knew to carry a gun. Swinton told a co-worker that he feared that he might lose his job if he complained because he was the "low man on the totem pole" (questioner's paraphrase). Finally, Swinton testified that "everyone already knew." This answer came in response to a question whether "people in management" knew of the racially offensive language directed at him.
On March 7, 1997, Swinton filed an application for unemployment benefits with the Washington Employment Security Department, indicating that he had quit on February 28. In his handwritten responses to questions on the application form, Swinton referred to "racial slander" and "racial jokes daily by numerous people," and stated, "Everyday, from one person or another, a racial joke or comment was thrown my way, and I was sick and tired of it." Swinton identified several of the specific jokes about which he and others later testified at trial. He noted that he "didn't feel comfortable going to management because they knew about the problem [and ] did nothing about it."
The State of Washington notified U.S. Mat of Swinton's allegations of racial harassment on or about April 17, 1999. Upon learning of the charges, U.S. Mat Human Resources Manager Vickie Thompson interviewed Stewart, the plant co-managers, and the president. All denied to Thompson that they had witnessed the harassment of Swinton. Sometime in June, Thompson also interviewed Fosdick, who had left U.S. Mat's employ April 1. After Swinton filed suit in July 1997, Thompson interviewed more of Swinton's co-workers, who confirmed Fosdick's telling of racial jokes but stated that they believed that Swinton was not bothered by them and "would laugh and joke back." In September of 1997, in apparent response to Swinton's charges, U.S. Mat had...
To continue readingFREE SIGN UP