Jury Awards $200,000 in Damages Against A.C. Widenhouse in EEOC Race Harassment Suit

WINSTON SALEM, N.C. - In a legal victory for the U.S. Equal Employmen Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a North Carolina federal jury has awarded compensatory and punitive damages against A.C. Widenhouse, Inc., a Concord, N.C.-based trucking company, the agency announced today.

On Jan. 28, the Winston-Salem jury of eight returned a unanimous verdict finding that Contonius Gill and Robert Floyd, Jr., former Widenhouse employees, were discriminated against based on their race, African-American. The jury also found that Gill was fired in retaliation for complaining about racial harassment at Widenhouse. The jury awarded a total of $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages to the men. The court will now decide back pay damages for Gill and injunctive relief.

According to the EEOC's lawsuit, Gill and Floyd worked as truck drivers for the company. From as early as May 2007 through at least June 2008, Gill was repeatedly subjected to unwelcome derogatory racial comments and slurs by the facility's general manager, who was also his supervisor; the company's dispatcher; several mechanics; and other truck drivers, all of whom are white. The comments and slurs included "n----r," "monkey" and "boy." Gill testified that on one occasion he was approached by a co-worker with a noose and was told, "This is for you. Do you want to hang from the family tree?" Gill further testified that he was asked by white employees if he wanted to be the "coon" in their "coon hunt."

Floyd testified that he also was subjected to repeated derogatory racial comments and slurs by the company's general manager and white employees. Floyd testified that when he was hired in 2005, he was the only African-American working at the company. Floyd said the company's general manager told him that he was the company's "token black." Floyd testified that on another occasion the general manager told him, "Don't find a noose with your name on it," and talked about having some of his "friends" visit Floyd in the middle of the night. Gill repeatedly complained about racial harassment to the company's dispatcher and general manager and Floyd complained to an owner of Widenhouse, but both men testified that the harassment continued.

Gill intervened in the lawsuit and in addition to the EEOC's claim of racial harassment, Gill said Widenhouse fired him based on his race and in retaliation for complaining about the racial harassment. The jury also returned a verdict in favor of Gill on both of his discriminatory discharge claims.

Race discrimination, including racial harassment, and retaliation for complaining about it, violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. A.C. Widenhouse, Inc., 1:11-cv-00498), in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina after first attempting to reach voluntary settlement through its conciliation process.

"This is the second jury verdict we have had within the last few months in a case alleging racial harassment," said EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez. "It is unfortunate that work­place racial harassment persists in the 21st century, and the EEOC will take those cases to trial, if necessary, to vindicate the rights of the victims."

"The jury verdict in this case is significant because it is a reminder to employers that race harassment and racial discrimination cannot be tolerated in the workplace," said Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC's Charlotte District Office. "The jury, acting as the conscience of this community, properly found that Widenhouse engaged in conduct that warranted an award of punitive damages. Such damages are designed to punish Widenhouse's past conduct and to deter this employer, as well as other employers, from engaging in this type of race discrimination. We are hopeful that this verdict sends a strong message to employers."

EEOC Trial Attorney Nicholas Walter, who tried the case, added, "We are pleased with the verdict and happy for Mr. Gill and Mr. Floyd. The jury took less than an hour to vindicate the rights of these gentlemen. The EEOC will pursue future cases of racial harassment and discrimination with the same diligence and fervor it did in this case against Widenhouse."