U.S. Seventh Circuit - The FindLaw 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Chrysler's Half-Measure Response to Anti-Semitic Harassment Costly

"Otto Cuban Jew muther f***er bastard get our message your family is not safe we will get you good Jew is a dead Jew say hi to your hore wife death to the jews heil hitler [swastika]."

Let's be clear about what we are dealing with here. What the threat lacked in spelling, it made up for in terror. It wasn't the first threat Otto May had received, either. For years, beginning in 2002 and ending in 2005, he endured harassment, with statements such as "Otto Cuban Jew fag die," scrawled on his toolbox, left on notes, or graffitied on the elevator wall. His cars were vandalized multiple times, his bike tire punctured, and at one point, a dead bird was dressed up in a toilet paper KKK outfit, with a pointy hat, and placed in a vise at his workstation.

Obviously, something had to be done. What did his Chrysler, his employer, do?

"During the first year of written threats and harassment, what had Chrysler done? They held a meeting. They interviewed May. And, one year in, they hired Calvert. Did that amount to a 'prompt and adequate' response to multiple racist and anti-Semitic death threats? Especially in light of the gravity of the harassment, the jury was presented with more than enough evidence to conclude that Chrysler had not done enough."

To make matters worse, Chrysler's trial strategy was absolutely puzzling. While they presented testimony that May was well-liked and that other employees (especially the HR department) were deeply concerned about the harassment, they also hinted that May himself was behind it!

Their handwriting expert testified that there was more evidence "that [May] did author the material than he did not." They also presented expert testimony (contradicted by May's expert) that he is extremely paranoid, histrionic, narcissistic, and that he is the kind of person who will "scream louder and louder wolf, wolf, wolf until they have your attention."

In other words, their case was "he's really nice, and we all like him, but he's paranoid, nuts, vandalized his own property, and oh yeah -- wrote death threats to himself."

The jury didn't buy it, nor did they feel that Chrysler had done its duty to make reasonable attempts to stop the harassment. And as mentioned before, the Seventh Circuit, after the case was reargued, found that there was sufficient evidence for the jury's verdict.

That same jury also ordered $3 million in punitive damages, which the trial judge nixed as a matter of law. The initial Seventh Circuit panel disagreed with the lower court judge, but after allowing the case to be reargued, this panel reversed course and affirmed the trial court's disallowable of punitive damages.

As shameful as the case strategy might have been, Chrysler did take steps to stop the harassment. They investigated, created procedures to address each incident of graffiti, allowed May to park in a more secure lot, hired the aforementioned handwriting expert to investigate, and held meetings with employees about the harassment.

It seems their initial response, especially the incomplete half-measures, were what supported the finding of fault.

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