CorpCar is a limousine service in Houston, Texas, and 75% of its chauffeurs are African-American. In the spring of 2009, several black employees requested time off to attend “Juneteenth” celebrations. “Juneteenth” is a holiday officially recognized by the State of Texas commemorating the June 19, 1865 announcement in Galveston, Texas of the emancipation of black slaves. Despite its awareness of the holiday, and that several employees requested time off, CorpCar scheduled mandatory safety meetings on June 18th thru June 20th. For entertainment during these meetings, the company hired a white woman dressed in a black gorilla suit, who proceeded to engage in a litany of offensive and discriminatory behavior. This included the performer referencing in a suggestive manner “big black lips,” “big black butts,” and bananas. During the presentation, the company’s general manager told James Henry, an African-American chauffeur who had requested time off, “Here’s your Juneteenth.” After Henry complained, he was told to “get over it.” The company permitted the gorilla performance at three more safety meetings.
Henry and another employee successfully sued CorpCar, asserting hostile working environment and retaliation claims. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury verdict, as well as the award of compensatory and punitive damages. While hostile working environment claims generally consist of several discriminatory events over an extended period of time, this decision reminds us that a single event, if severe enough, can constitute a hostile working environment.
The court writes a thoughtful opinion touching on the humiliation and intimidation African Americans have suffered throughout history with comparisons to apes, monkeys, gorillas, and the like. In determining that Corpcar’s isolated conduct was indeed sufficiently severe to create a hostile working environment, the court noted that “a mandatory, dramatic performance mocking freedom from slavery for African-Americans in this country is exceeding offensive and egregious. Considering the conduct in light of the “social context,”…the severity of the harassment is apparent.”
In the age of the internet and social media, it seems that we have become desensitized to the struggles of others, and vitriol has replaced compassion and civil discourse. Not surprisingly, this intolerance has crept into the workplace. While workers are rapidly losing their rights to jury trials, this case reminds us that the judicial system can ensure that employment laws provide the protections that workers need and deserve.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.