By Tommy Eden, Attorney
A Birmingham, Alabama federal court jury this week in the case of Albert L. Thomas v. Chemical Lime Company awarded $314,000 to a African-American Birmingham area man who filed suit in a Title VII retaliatory discharge claim. Albert Thomas is a 50-year-old African-American male who worked for Chemical Lime in Calera for over 25 years when he was fired in December 2008. He had begun as a laborer and advanced to the position of control room operator making $20.33 an hour.
In the summer of 2008, Thomas discovered several large white rags cut out in the form of a Ku Klux Klan hood. He pointed this out to his supervisor who reacted by holding up one of the hoods and making inappropriate comments and gestures. Shortly after the incident, Thomas was falsely accused of violating company policy and demoted to the position of laborer with a pay reduction to $14.90 an hour. A younger white employee took over his position. Thomas was also refused the opportunity to work overtime and in September 2008 filed an EEOC charge against Chemical Lime. After Chemical Lime received a copy of his EEOC charge, Thomas testified that his production supervisor told him they were going to "fire his black ---" and "you won't be working too much longer, you will be with your brothers on the street." In December 2008 Thomas was terminated by Chemical Lime. He testified that it was in retaliation for opposing discrimination and engaging in the protected activity of filing of an EEOC charge. The EEOC investigator found that there was credible evidence to support reasonable cause to believe that the Title VII retaliatory violations had occurred.
It was not the supervisor’s action initially involving the KKK hood, it was the Chemical Lime's failure to properly handle the investigation and then took impermissible retaliatory steps against Thomas that resulted in this jury’s substantial verdict. EEOC Retaliatory charges in 2010 were at historically record levels.
Common Sense Counsel: prevention is the key to avoiding this type of embarrassing adverse outcome. When an employee makes an allegation of harassment or violation of EEO policy, or files an EEOC charge, it is vitally important that Alabama employers involve a seasoned HR professional or management labor attorney to advise them before taking any adverse action against the employee. Conducting a through investigation of the facts and circumstances - including allowing the employee to tell their side of the events - before making an adverse employment decision is a great risk reduction step. Consistently follow systematic steps to ensure that each of your discharge decisions are legal and defensible.
Tommy Eden is a Lee County native, an attorney with the local office of Capell & Howard, P.C. and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-501-1540.