Federal Jury Awards Secretary Over $200,000 in Suit Against Union

September 1, 2010

n August, a federal jury awarded a 28-year secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 159, more than $200,000. The jury found that she was harassed and retaliated against after she objected to the union’s rejection of an African American electrician who she believed was denied union membership because of his race. 

Susan Blue began working as a union secretary in 1978. She worked for the union’s business manager, William Harrelson, from 2002 until 2006 without discipline or criticism about the quality of her work. In January 2006, Harrelson refused Alexander Phillips, an African American electrician, eligibility for referrals. Phillips had already passed his journeyman exam, paid his initiation fees, and signed the referral book. Following the union’s decision, his name was crossed out of the referral book. Around the same time, Harrelson allowed a white electrician who hadn’t paid his initiation fees to sign the referral book and receive referrals for work.

Phillips filed a discrimination claim with the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission (MEOC). When the complaint was received at the union office, Blue voiced her concern about the union’s decision in support of Phillips’ complaint. Almost immediately, Harrelson’s attitude toward her became hostile. He began a campaign of unwarranted discipline (which was later confirmed in grievance proceedings by Blue’s own union and a review by Harrelson’s successor), removed some of her duties, treated her differently than other employees, and isolated her from her coworkers.

In February 2007, within two days of receiving notice that the MEOC was proceeding to a hearing on Phillips’ complaint, Harrelson issued Blue four warnings in a single day — each of which was later determined to be unjustified. He knew she had responded to MEOC questions when he gave her the warnings because she had voiced her concerns about the union’s treatment of Phillips.

In addition to numerous other adverse actions during February and March, Harrelson suspended Blue for five days without pay for insubordination and then added four more days. Both suspensions were later rescinded when Harrelson’s successor determined they weren’t supported by the facts. They also violated the union’s progressive discipline policy.

The following January, Blue was diagnosed with job-related stress-induced anxiety, and in April, she was placed on disability leave for 90 days. Harrelson wasn’t reelected by the union and passed away in October.

Lawsuit and jury verdict 
In 2009, Blue filed a federal lawsuit asserting retaliation in violation of 24 U.S.C. Section 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court denied the union’s request for dismissal, and the matter proceeded to trial.

The jury found that Blue had engaged in statutorily protected activity and was subjected to significantly adverse employment actions. Further, it found that her protected activity was a motivating factor in the union’s adverse actions against her. She was awarded $26,396.76 in compensatory damages for lost wages and benefits, $45,000 for emotional pain and suffering, and $135,000 in punitive damages. At the time we went to press, the union had not yet filed an appeal. Blue v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — Local 159, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, Case No. 09-CV-395-WMC.

Bottom line 
As illustrated by the large punitive damages award in this case, juries are inclined to punish employers for retaliating against employees who exercise their right to participate in protected activities such as condemning race discrimination in the workplace. In this case, the employee herself suffered no discrimination; rather, she believed she had witnessed unlawful activity and sought to exercise her right to “make things right.” Employers must inform their managers and supervisors that retaliatory conduct will not be tolerated. Additionally, you must ensure that your workplace is free from harassment and discrimination. As this case shows, failure to do so can be costly.

To subscribe to email alerts from Axley Law Firm, click here.