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No Discretion Abuse in Workplace Racial Discrimination Case

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 23, 2011 4:06 PM

Nucor is a large steel manufacturing company that operates a number of production plants throughout the United States.

Nucor has a morale problem at one of its plants.

Six current and former African-American employees of Nucor's Blytheville, Arkansas, plant brought a racial discrimination complaint - alleging both disparate treatment and disparate impact theories - against the company. The plaintiffs alleged that Nucor denied them promotions and training opportunities and tolerated a racially hostile work environment.

That hostility included racial epithets, racial graffiti in the bathrooms, a Confederate flag frequently displayed in the plant, and Confederate-style "do-rags" sold in Nucor's onsite store for employees. Evidence also suggested that black employees were ridiculed on the workplace radio system.

At trial, a jury awarded each plaintiff $200,000 in damages.

Nucor argued to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that the district court abused its discretion in permitting the plaintiffs to question a company spokesman at trial about letters between Nucor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because the letters were hearsay testimony. The Eighth Circuit found that the district court had not abused its discretion.

In a hostile environment case, evidence of prior acts of discrimination can be probative of the type of workplace environment to which the plaintiffs were subjected, and of the employer's knowledge.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's stance that questioning a company "spokesman" about the EEOC letter, with which he claimed to be unfamiliar, was relevant to the company's knowledge, and how it treats racial matters.

When representing a client in a workplace racial discrimination claim, don't rely on the hearsay rules to exclude evidence that it is critical of your client. As the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals noted, testimony can be relevant to an employment discrimination case without being offered for the truth of the matter asserted.

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