The Role of Juries in Preventing Racism in the Workplace

default author image03.01.2024

What is workplace race discrimination?

Race is one of several protected classes under federal law, making it illegal to treat someone differently at work because of their race or skin color. Many states and cities have their own laws banning workplace racism. Laws, of course, do not prevent racial discrimination from happening. Instead, laws serve to hold people and institutions accountable to a societal standard of dignity and morality. 

Many instances of workplace racism don’t make the news, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. In 2021, over 20,000 complaints of race discrimination were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), making up 34% of all complaints filed with the agency.

Race discrimination at work comes in many forms. It can be overt, such as the use of racial slurs directed at a colleague. It can also be subtle, such as being denied a raise or passed over for a promotion due to unconscious bias.

Extra consideration must be given to how workplace power dynamics can perpetuate racism. Employers and supervisors often control employees’ salaries, bonuses, benefits, promotions, project assignments, department transfers, and required training. This overarching control over a person’s career can make workers hesitant to speak up for themselves and demand a racism-free workplace.

Choosing to report racism to human resources or seek legal representation can be daunting. We admire our clients’ courage when they come forward to hold their employers accountable for abuses of power rooted in racism.

What role do juries play in stopping racism in the workplace?

Juries play an instrumental role in holding employers accountable for workplace racism. The role of the jury in a civil case is to examine the facts of a case and to apply the law to the facts. This can include deciding compensatory and punitive damages for the case. Compensatory damages can include monetary compensation for wages lost and medical expenses such as therapy. Punitive damages, on the other hand, serve to hold defendants (typically the employer) accountable for the harm they’ve caused.

Notable jury verdicts in workplace race discrimination cases

Jennifer Harris v. FedEx

Jennifer Harris, a Black woman, worked at FedEx for over 12 years. Harris began at FedEx in an entry-level sales position and was promoted six times, eventually becoming a district manager in 2017. Near the end of her time at the company, Harris submitted a complaint to HR after her white supervisor suggested she take a demotion. A few weeks after her complaint was investigated, Harris’s supervisor placed her on a performance improvement plan. She submitted several claims of retaliation that the company said were unsubstantiated. She was ultimately fired in January 2020.

In October 2022, a jury in the Southern District of Texas found that while the company hadn’t discriminated against Harris, her termination constituted unlawful retaliation. The jury awarded Harris $1.16 million in compensatory damages and $365 million in punitive damages.

FedEx successfully appealed the decision in February 2024 and the appeals court reduced the award to nearly $250,000 in compensatory damages. While this is significantly lower than the jury’s original decision and excludes punitive damages, the jury clearly believed Harris deserved more, and that FedEx should have been punished.

Owen Diaz v. Tesla

Owen Diaz started working at a Tesla factory in 2015 and stayed there for less than a year. While working at Tesla, Diaz says he faced a constant onslaught of racial slurs by his coworkers. Diaz even testified that his supervisor threatened physical violence against him and that he reported it to the company. The investigation into the complaint was never completed, as the program manager investigating the incident was told to stop by his boss and HR claimed to never have been informed about the issue.

Diaz filed a complaint in 2017 and his case went to trial in 2021. A jury awarded him $6.9 million in compensatory damages and $130 million in punitive damages. It was believed to be one of the largest jury verdicts for a single plaintiff at the time.

However, Tesla’s lawyers successfully convinced a judge to give Diaz the option for a reduced award or a damages-only retrial on the basis that the original award was excessive. Diaz chose a retrial, and a new jury awarded him $100,000 for past non-economic damages, $75,000 for future non-economic damages, and $3 million for punitive damages—significantly less than the original verdict. In the second trial, Tesla lawyers attempted to discredit Diaz and his mental state, which may have led to the reduced award.

Tesla is now facing a federal race discrimination lawsuit after the company failed to cooperate with the EEOC to address workplace discrimination.

Röbynn Europe v. Equinox

Röbynn Europe, a Black woman, began working at Equinox in 2018 as a personal fitness trainer and was promoted to a manager position less than two months later. After her promotion, one employee, a white man, refused to accept her as his supervisor and created a hostile working environment. He frequently made objectifying comments about Black women, including clients, and inappropriate comments about other staff members to Europe.

In addition, Europe says Equinox accepted a white member’s request to specifically be assigned a white trainer, despite her objections that the request was racist. Europe reported these numerous issues to HR, but Equinox began disciplining Europe and ultimately terminated her several months later.

In 2020, Europe filed a complaint for discrimination and retaliation and three years later the case went to trial. A jury awarded Europe $1.25 million in compensatory damages, $16,000 in economic damages, and $10 million in punitive damages.

As time passes, more cases of race-based workplace discrimination make their way into the public consciousness. Juries force employers to take workplace racism seriously by punishing them for breaking the law. This in turn helps ensure that employers treat all their employees with dignity and respect.