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Sunday, 11 November 2007 00:00

Two Racial Discrimination Cases Should Force Changes in Cocoa

Written by  Valetta Chaney

Two conscientious, African-American employees, who worked in the City of Cocoa’s water department, filed racial discrimination lawsuits against the City of Cocoa. Both men ended their careers when they filed a lawsuit, but the issues they raised in court should force the City of Cocoa to try to correct a hostile work environment, and examine the beliefs, attitudes, and values of its employees.

James Daniels, Sr. a former utilities supervisor, worked for the City of Cocoa for 34 years, before he abruptly ended his stellar career in public service, in 2006. During his career as a Supervisor II, Mr. Daniels was an extremely dedicated and competent worker who received excellent evaluations and unsolicited letters of commendation from customers for outstanding work,” his attorney, Mark Tietig said. Daniels, 63, retired after his co-workers taunted him with a noose and racial slurs.

When his racial discrimination lawsuit against the City of Cocoa was heard in court recently, an all-white jury decided, on Oct. 3, 2007, that Daniels had not been discriminated against. The jury rejected every claim Daniels made in court, and refused to grant him the $200,000 award he sought for damages. Daniels said he will not appeal the decision.

But the jury didn’t know that before Daniels’ case was heard in court, his African-American co-worker, Elbert “Tex” Williams, also had sued the City of Cocoa for racial discrimination--and the City of Cocoa paid $100,000, in Oct. 2003, to settle Williams’ lawsuit, in an out-of-court settlement.

Attorney Mark Tietig represented both Williams and Daniels in their lawsuits, and Tietig presented many of the same charges about the water department in both lawsuits. “Mr. Daniels was subjected to and/or aware of virtually all of the racism and retaliation over which Tex Williams had sued,” Tietig said.

Daniels and Williams worked in a division of the city’s water department called the Transmission and Distribution division. Both men charged in separate lawsuits that the department’s “hostile work environment” filled with racial slurs, alleged racist officials, and other racially charged insensitive acts--including a noose found hanging in the workplace--prompted their lawsuit against the city.

One supervisor described the water department as a “tinder box, ready to go off.” Tietig found that one department official had admitted to being “a racist on at least two occasions, specifically against African-Americans in one of those occasions.”

According to the lawsuits, some of the supervisors engaged in unfair treatment of African-American employees, by depriving them of necessary equipment and subjecting them to stricter employment standards, and harsher penalties for job-related infractions.

Upon carefully examining the city’s water department, Tietig told the court he found that black employees in the city’s water department were subjected to: harsher discipline, closer scrutiny, more dangerous and difficult tasks, racial epithets--including the N-word, inadequate equipment, fewer opportunities for extra pay, and verbal abuse by supervisors during weekly staff meetings.

Williams sued the department, in 2002, for rampant racial discrimination, racial harassment, and retaliation by the City, specifically perpetrated by two supervisors in the T& D division. In Williams’ case, “one of the white superintendents was engaged in the false imprisonment of Williams,” Tietig said. The incident cost the city $100,000.

The supervisor “slapped his hand on Mr. Williams’ chest so loudly that the slap was heard by the other people present,” according to Tietig. The supervisor “deliberately pushed Mr. Williams into a door and door frame,” and “physically injured Mr. Williams, causing him to suffer a bruised and sore shoulder, and a sore and swollen hand,” according to Tietig. The supervisor still works for the department, and has never received a reprimand or any discipline from the city for the incident. But the city attorney said there was no discrimination on the part of the city.

“There were claims in the Williams case that had nothing to do with discrimination,” said City of Cocoa Attorney Anthony Garganese, who has represented the city since 1994. “The city’s decision to settle was a business decision.”

“It was an agreed upon settlement,” said Garganese, who said the city paid the claim to Williams because of the city’s insurance carrier. “The insurance carrier is a player,” Garganese said. “The city had a different insurance carrier under Mr. Williams’ claim.

“The city did not admit any guilt. “The city did not admit any wrongdoing whatsoever,” Garganese said. There was a strong possibility that we could have won as well, if we had gone to trial,” Garganese said of Williams’ lawsuit.

Tietig said the difference in Williams’ case and Daniels’ case is that “employees in Williams’ case told the truth about the supervisor.” Daniels’ case centered around a noose.
“In Mr. Daniels’ case, one of the department’s hourly workers, Wayne Wilson, a heavy equipment operator, testified that he saw the noose in a pile of rope,” Tietig said. “He took the noose out and taped a memo to it. The memo was regarding changes in pay for the department,” Tietig said.

“He hung the noose with the memo attached,” Tietig said of the incident that led to Daniels’ discrimination lawsuit. “The city tried to get (Wilson) to say that all employees were being hung out to dry. That, in and of itself is bad enough,” Tietig said. “But what made the violation was the fact that the superintendent saw the noose and walked right past it.”

“When whites see a noose, they think of lynching, too--in Florida, and everywhere else I know of in the U.S.,” Tietig said. “If it is true that he merely wanted to symbolize that the city workers were being hung out to dry, then why didn’t they use a clothesline and clothespin?” Tietig argued before the jury.

Tietig said some evidence he presented in Daniels’court case showed that the water department fostered a hostile environment for African-American employees, and that supervisors were aware of that fact, yet unconcerned. "We had the burden of proof," Tietig said.

“The City knew of the racially harassing conduct against Mr. Daniels and his black coworkers by their white coworkers and supervisors, but failed to take prompt remedial action; and, despite years of objections by Mr. Daniels, Tex Williams, ...and other City employees, the City created, allowed, and condoned a working environment that was racially hostile and abusive, and that Mr. Daniels (and his coworkers) subjectively perceived to be racially hostile and abusive to him and other City employees,” Tietig argued in court.

But, Garganese argued, “There was no racial discrimination.” “He made a lot of accusations he couldn’t prove,” Garganese said of Tietig’s arguments.

“Like we said in trial, this was just an unfortunate situation with the noose incident that occurred in the lunchroom. From our perspective it was an unfortunate situation that a city employee attached a noose to a note regarding possible layoffs and budget cuts, claiming that the employees were being hung out to dry,” Garganese said.

“The city took appropriate steps to reprimand and handle that situation,” Garganese said. “The city certainly did not condone it, and when we learned about it, appropriate steps were taken.”

No city employee has ever been reprimanded for any incident claimed in the racial discrimination lawsuits, according to Tietig. Williams and Daniels, both exemplary employees, were forced to leave a hostile work environment, but the City of Cocoa continues to employ supervisors and employees who were said to have made the work environment in the water department hostile--so hostile that eventually, one lawsuit led to another.

“Despite the large body of undisputed evidence supporting Tex Williams’ claims, the City did nothing meaningful to effect change in the racism and racially charged work environment of the T&D department, including the reassignment and/or termination of supervisors,” Tietig said.

“No City employee in the department alleged to have engaged in racial discrimination or retaliation was subjected to any investigation or extraordinary training or supervision,” Tietig told the court in Daniels' case.

“The lone course required of City employees only touched upon diversity, lasted only a couple of hours, and did not grade or otherwise assess course participants after the course. Nobody deposed about the course, including the City’s human resources manager, could remember anything meaningful about the course,” Tietig found. Tietig said nothing in the course dealt with retaliation, and the city also has no policy in place to address issues concerning a noose.

“I don’t think we have a policy that addresses a noose, Garganese said. We have a general policy that addresses appropriate behavior and conduct, and we have policies that prohibit discrimination of all kinds,” Garganese said.

“After a lawsuit like this, the city will always look back and take stock and see if there was anything we could have done differently,” Garganese said.

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