Stick and stones will break your bones, but racial slurs will cost you.
Last month, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $200,000 verdict in a racial discrimination lawsuit against a former police officer, who both verbally and physically attacked an African-American driver. (Brief thanks to Wait a Second! for bringing this case to our attention.)
Plaintiff Aaron Wong, clearly an observer of hands-free cell phone driving laws, had turned into the residential parking area in Staten Island to complete a cell phone call when defendant James Mangone, a white former police officer, pulled his truck into the parking spot directly in front of Wong's car.
Wong claimed that Mangone stuck his head through the driver's side window of Wong's car and delivered a racially-charged rant that we don't feel comfortable printing, even in quotation marks. (If you're curious, the Second Circuit included a snippet of the slurs in the summary order.)
Mangone maintains that he approached the car to inquire what Wong's business was in the parking lot, but that he used a moderate tone and did not touch the car. (An inquiry, which no doubt began "Pardon me, good sir.")
The exchange escalated to a physical altercation involving "a range of impromptu weapons, including the driver's side mirror of Wong's car, a circular saw, a metal pipe, a wooden broom handle, and a baton."
When police arrived on the scene, and found Wong face down on the ground, they concluded that Wong had assaulted Mangone, and arrested Wong. Wong was later taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a right mandible fracture, which required multiple surgeries.
Wong brought a racial discrimination lawsuit against Mangone and several members of the NYPD, alleging, among other things, causes of action under 42 U.S.C. §1981. A jury found that Mangone violated the statute, and awarded Wong $200,000 in damages -- $183,000 in compensatory damages and $17,000 in punitive damages.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict and award, finding that a jury could reasonably conclude that Wong established a claim under §1981.
To prevail in a §1981 claim, a plaintiff must prove that the plaintiff is a member of a racial minority, the defendant intended to discriminate on the basis of race, and the discrimination concerned one or more of the statutorily enumerated activities.
Here, Wong used the right "to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens" as the statutory activity. While unusual, the claim can be asserted against private individuals, like Mangone.
If you represent a client who sustained injuries in a racially-motivated attack, you may want to weigh the option of filing a federal claim in a racial discrimination lawsuit.
- Aaron Wong v. James Mangone (Second Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Employee Files Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Texas City (Houston Employment Law blog)
- Civil Rights & Discrimination Resources (FindLaw)