I tell my clients regularly that even when a plaintiff wins, most juries do not award compensatory damages or punitive damages. Punitive damages are rare in employment cases. What would be required for a jury or judge to award punitive damages. We get a look at what is required in Rhines v. Salinas Construction Technologies, Ltd., No. 13-40473 (5th Cir. 6/25/14). In this case, the jury found in favor of the employee and awarded $2,200 in lost wages and benefits, $10,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages. The employer appealed. The judge reduced the punitive damages award to satisfy the cap of $50,000 for compensatory and punitive damages. 

The Fifth Circuit opinion noted the evidence at trial showed That Mr. Rhines, African-American, was the recipient of many racial epithets. Co-workers, and later his foreman, referred to Mr. Rhines as "guero," which means white guy. His project manager referred to him as his "boy." Mr. Rhines asked the project managerto stop, but he would not. The supervisor referred to him with the n-word in English and Spanish. Mr. Rhines then complained in writing to the company office. The company did not respond. His supervisor told him not to contact the company again. Mr. Rhines asked for time off to be with his dying brother. Not receiving a response, he took time off anyway and was fired. 

The court found there was sufficient evidence of hostile work environment. The employer defended with claims they had an EEO policy. But, it turns out the company lied to the EEOC when they claimed to have appointed an investigator to look into Mr. Rhines’ claims. The purported investigator testified that he had no involvement in any investigation. 

Evidence at trial also showed that the company lied when  it claimed that Mr. Rhines had never submitted a written complaint about discrimination. The supervisor admitted that he was in a hurry when he signed an affidavit saying he had not referred to Mr. Rhines with racial comments ("Guero" and "wuedo" – light skinned). T

To award punitive damages, a jury must find there was a positive element of conscious wrongdoing. The Fifth Circuit found this standard for punitive damages had been met. The false information provided to the EEOC shows such wrongdoing. The lack of a good faith effort to investigate shows such wrongdoing. And, Salinas Construction knew its workers referred to Mr. Rhines with racial comments. Yet, it submitted information to the EEOC denying the use of racial epithets. That was sufficient evidence to support the award of punitive damages. See decision here

Unfortunately, this decision will not be published beyond the court’s website. It is an unpublished decision.