A sheet-metal mechanic who was fired after 25 years on the job has been awarded $500,000 in a discrimination case against a Birmingham aviation company.
Johnny Hawkins, a black man, had been an employee at Alabama Aircraft Industries (formerly Pemco Aviation Group) since 1980. He was fired in 2005 after it was alleged he intimidated and harassed a female employee.
A jury in U.S. District Court in Birmingham deliberated three hours before returning a verdict, which included $250,000 in punitive damages against Alabama Aircraft. Hawkins prevailed on charges of gender and race discrimination, but the jury found against him on a claim of retaliation.
The lawsuit grew from a workplace incident where a female coworker was supposed to be watching out for Hawkins while he worked in a confined space. The woman left for lunch without telling Hawkins, and he later confronted her and said that leaving him unattended was a serious safety violation.
Hawkins complained to the company's human-resources department, but the woman was not disciplined. Meanwhile, the woman complained that Hawkins had touched and intimidated her. That resulted in his termination.
John Saxon, Hawkins' attorney, showed that white men who had admittedly touched or harassed coworkers either got light discipline or none at all.
"Johnny Hawkins was a 25-year veteran of Pemco who tapped a female employee on the shoulder to get her attention to tell her she left him unattended in a confined space, an OSHA violation," Saxon said. "For touching her, he was terminated. Yet white employees hit, grabbed or kicked black employees and received no or light discipline. Not only is that a double standard, it is also discrimination."
Hawkins' retaliation claim apparently was based on the fact that he had been a member of a 1998 class-action discrimination lawsuit against his employer. Based on my research of case law, the retaliation claim probably failed because of the considerable time gap between the 1998 lawsuit and the 2005 termination.
Alabama Aircraft's attorney said the company has modified its policies and instituted annual diversity seminars in order to address issues raised by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The company probably will appeal the Hawkins verdict, attorney Doris Sewell said.
Saxon said the company still has a ways to go on the discrimination front. "Pemco has a checkered past," he said. "They have problems out there."