Employment Law Update October 2021
Employment discrimination headlines and more rulings on vaccine mandates dominated the news in October 2021. Here are some of the key developments:
Jury awards $137 million verdict to African American subcontractor in Tesla racial harassment trial
A jury in California awarded $136.9 million to a former African American subcontractor after finding that the man was subjected to a hostile work environment at Tesla’s northern California factory. The plaintiff, Owen Diaz, stated that his colleagues repeatedly referred to him using racial slurs, that he observed racist graffiti on the premises, and that the company was aware of the incidents and failed to act to stop it. Tesla’s human resources representative acknowledged the use of racial slurs, but challenged that they responded to the Plaintiff’s complaints by firing two contractors and suspending another, and also pointed out that other witnesses reported that the slurs were primarily being used by African American colleagues in a “friendly” manner. $130 million of the award was for punitive damages, with the remainder for past and future noneconomic damages. Tesla has not announced whether it will appeal the verdict. In any case, the verdict serves as a reminder of the importance of prompt and effective action from management when racially offensive behavior occurs in the workplace.
Jury rules in favor of white male in bias case and awards $10 million
A jury in North Carolina awarded a white male marketing vice president $10 million who was fired and replaced by two women, one of whom was African American, as part of a hospital’s ‘five year plan’ to boost diversity. The Plaintiff, David Duvall, alleged that he was inexplicably terminated just days before reaching his 5 year work anniversary, which would have resulted in him receiving a higher severance payout than he was given. He allegedly had regularly received “rave reviews” from his superiors prior to his termination, and was told at the time he was terminated that the decision to terminate his employment had nothing to do with his performance. The hospital countered that Duvall was terminated for deficient performance. Duvall’s attorney commented, “the case is about the fact that you cannot fire people just to create opportunities to fill positions. It is not a case against diversity and inclusion”, pointing out that Duvall actually sat on a committee to promote diversity and inclusion while employed at the hospital.
First Circuit Court of Appeals declines to freeze Maine vaccine mandate despite not offering a religious exemption
The First Circuit has affirmed the denial of an injunction to eight workers in Maine and a Maine private health-care provider concerning Maine’s vaccine mandate. The Plaintiffs sought to bar the state’s enforcement of an emergency rule requiring Covid-19 vaccinations for all employees at health-care facilities because the law failed to include a religious exemption. The Plaintiffs asserted that that the lack of a religious exemption to the vaccination requirement violates their federal constitutional and statutory rights. They all sought exemptions based upon sincerely held religious beliefs that oppose taking the vaccine. While the denial of the injunction is not the end of the challenge to the law, the ruling signals that the Court was not persuaded that the Plaintiffs were likely to prevail. The Maine law does permit a medical exemption to the vaccine mandate.
Jeff Burke is an attorney at MacElree Harvey, Ltd., working in the firm’s Employment and Litigation practice groups. Jeff counsels businesses and individuals on employment practices and policies, employee hiring and separation issues, non-competition and other restrictive covenants, wage and hour disputes, and other employment-related matters. Jeff represents businesses and individuals in employment litigation such as employment contract disputes, workforce classification audits, and discrimination claims based upon age, sex, race, religion, disability, sexual harassment, and hostile work environment. Jeff also practices in commercial litigation as well as counsels business on commercial contract ma