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Monday, September 14, 2009

Alabama Jury Awards $2.4 Million in Workplace-Retaliation Case

A federal jury in Birmingham recently struck a blow for victims of workplace retaliation.

Jurors found that Sumter County Sheriff Johnny L. Hatter must pay $2.4 million to two former employees who faced retaliation and wrongful termination on the job.

The jury awarded almost $1 million to Kimberly Smith-McKenzie, a part-time dispatcher who filed a sexual-harassment complaint after Hatter said he would offer her a full-time job if she participated in phone sex with him.

Jurors awarded $1.4 million to Bruce Walker, a deputy who said he was fired after supporting Smith-McKenzie and discussing the sexual harassment with a state investigator.

The case presents a number of intriguing angles.

One, the verdict is unusually large for an employment case. Does that mean jurors, with unemployment raging in the Bush recession, have a heightened sensitivity for those who are mistreated on the job?

Two, Alabama has a tortured history on race, but this case hints at progress in that area. Hatter and Smith-McKenzie are black. Walker, who stood up for a black victim of sexual harassment, is white.

Hatter's attorneys vowed to fight the verdict through post-trial reviews or appeals. The case has been a drawn-out ordeal for Smith-McKenzie and Walker. Reports Stephanie Taylor of the Tuscaloosa News:

Walker, a fourth-generation Sumter County resident, could not find a job in the county after he was fired, Robertson said, so he joined the U.S. Army. He had been a member of the National Guard for many years. The case, filed in 2001, languished in court because Walker was on active duty for much of the time.

Smith-McKenzie moved to Montgomery with her husband and son and works full time for the U.S. Postal Service.

Regular Legal Schnauzer readers know that I, like Smith-McKenzie and Walker, have been the victim of workplace retaliation. I complained about age discrimination and harassment against my former supervisor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and wound up being fired roughly three weeks later--contrary to UAB policy and federal law.

Retaliation seems to be rampant in the modern workplace, and we have written extensively about the subject--in Alabama and beyond.

Does the Sumter County verdict mean the ground has shifted on retaliation lawsuits? Does it mean that I, or other victims, will receive seven-figure judgments in our favor?

Absolutely not. In fact, it doesn't mean we will prevail at all. If I've learned anything about the federal-court environment, it's this: Juries can swing wildly from one extreme to another--on cases that appear to present similarly vile levels of misconduct.

So what can we take from the Sumter County case? Perhaps it is this message: If rogue employers, in Alabama or elsewhere, think juries are going to treat workplace retaliation as a frivolous matter . . . they might want to think again.

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