Federal Court Delivers Against UPS

A federal judge upheld a $100,000 jury award won by a lesbian employee of the shipping company.

A federal judge upheld a $100,000 jury award won by a lesbian employee of the shipping company.

Rejecting motions to set aside a jury verdict, order a new trial, or reduce damages, Judge Jack B. Weinstein upheld a federal jury’s award of $100,000 in damages to Tameeka Roberts, an employee at a UPS facility in Queens, who complained that the company tolerated a hostile environment created by her supervisor and retaliated against her when she pressed her complaint to the New York State Division of Human Rights.

According to Weinstein’s opinion, Roberts lives with her wife and three sons in New Jersey. She began working for UPS in 1995. Her problems were with Donald Woodard, who supervised Roberts in 2007 and 2008, and again from 2010 through 2012.

In 2007, Roberts first complained that Woodard made a denigrating comment about another lesbian employee to her.

“The next day, Woodard brought his Bible to work and ‘showed [Roberts] where [the Bible] says that being a lesbian is wrong.’ He told her ‘It goes against the Bible… It’s a sin,'” Weinstein wrote. Woodard admitted making these comments in his trial testimony. Roberts complained to her shop steward and the head of security, but apparently nothing happened in response to her complaint.

“During the rest of 2007, Woodard repeatedly told plaintiff that ‘being a lesbian is wrong’ and that she was ‘going to hell,’” Weinstein wrote. Woodard’s anti-lesbian comments continued during 2008.

The problem ceased in 2009 when Woodard stopped working at the Maspeth facility, but he returned as Roberts’ supervisor in 2010, and his comments resumed.

Roberts reported these comments to her shop steward and a night manager. The manager told her “do not go to corporate” with this complaint, because “I will handle the situation.” Woodard’s comments then stopped for a while, but in the late summer of 2012 he started up again, and Roberts renewed her complaints to the shop steward, who finally brought her to human resources, where, apparently, nothing happened.

In October of 2012, Roberts called the UPS Corporate Concerns hotline, anonymously. She identified herself as a lesbian and said she felt “intimidated” and “harassed” because Mr. Woodard engages in “religious rants at the job” and makes “derogatory comments about gays.”

A few days later, Roberts met with the local HR representative, a manager, and her shop steward, and an investigation of Woodard began. The HR representative cautioned Woodard that “religion has no place in the workplace,” but took no other action. Roberts felt the company should have done more, so she sent a letter to corporate headquarters in Atlanta, claiming she was being harassed by Woodard and felt threatened and stressed. She asked, “Why is Donald Woodard allowed to Harass, Gay Bash and verbal abuse [sic] his employees and still be employed at United Parcel Service?”

The letter led to a second investigation, this time by the UPS human resources operations manager for the district, Beverly Riddick. She met with Roberts and told her that UPS was taking her complaint “very seriously.” Athough Riddick learned that Roberts’ factual allegations were apparently true, Riddick did not believe that Woodward’s comments violated the law or company policy, but were merely “inappropriate.”

“Woodard was not told to desist,” Weinstein wrote. Riddick also interviewed the shop steward and two of Roberts’ co-workers. Although these interviews confirmed Roberts’ allegations, Riddick concluded that Woodard’s statements did not constitute discrimination or harassment, she testified at trial.

When she learned about the outcome of the investigation, Roberts filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights early in December 2012. She informed her shop stewards and union delegate about filing the complaint. Soon after, she suffered injuries when a number of packages fell and hit her face, shoulder, arm and hand. The accident may have been caused by Woodard’s failure to follow safety protocols.

The jury concluded that Roberts was subjected to a hostile environment because she is a lesbian and that she suffered retaliation after she complained both internally and to the civil rights agency. The jury awarded her compensatory damages of $25,000 for each claim and punitive damages of $25,000 for each claim, totaling $100,000, as well as awarding her the costs of her litigation.

UPS filed pre-trial motions seeking to dismiss, and it renewed its motions post-trial, arguing that Roberts had failed to prove a violation of the law and was not entitled to the damages. Weinstein rejected these.

“Defendant argues that plaintiff fails to make a prima facie case of hostile work environment because she presents only ‘petty slights and trivial inconveniences,’” he wrote. “To the contrary, Woodard’s continuing discriminatory comments about plaintiff’s sexual orientation, made over a number of years, show adverse differential treatment. So too do the significant failures of supervisors to protect plaintiff against discrimination.”

UPS could appeal this to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, but Weinstein was careful to emphasize the 2nd Circuit’s own guidelines for evaluating such claims, and to provide extensive sections of the trial testimony to show that the jury had a strong evidentiary basis for its verdict. Also, his characterization of the damages as “modest” seems correct, in light of larger damage awards he noted in other cases. This looks like a verdict that is likely to withstand appeal.