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After a three-week trial, a federal jury last week cleared the General Accident Insurance Co. of any wrongdoing in a race discrimination suit brought by a black man who said he was routinely passed over for promotions due to the racist leanings of a top senior vice president. “Race was not an issue in this company, and race was not an issue in the promotions that were sought by this plaintiff,” attorney Carolyn P. Short of Reed Smith Shaw & McClay told the jury in her closing argument. The plaintiff in the suit, William F. Davis, was hired by GA in 1983 to work in its information systems division and soon was promoted to manager of the company’s “corporate project management” department. But in 1993, the department was dissolved and Davis was demoted to a non-management position. Although his salary was not reduced, his pay grade was reduced from a level 18 to a level 16. Davis’s lawyers, Joyce Brong and Anna Durbin, argued that Davis’s boss, John Cousins, wanted to see him promoted again, but that higher-level managers, led by senior vice president William Jenkins, routinely blocked any promotions. Instead, they said, the jobs went to white candidates, many of whom were external hires. When Cousins, who is white, complained about how Davis was being treated and reported that Jenkins was racist — including allegations that Jenkins used the “n-word” — the company responded by firing Cousins, they said. And when Cousins filed a lawsuit, they said, GA retaliated against Davis by taking away a plum assignment he was working on — that he hoped would finally win him a promotion — and assigned it to a white worker. They also said the day-to-day environment at GA was permeated by racial harassment and that the department Davis wanted to join was commonly referred to as the “middle-aged white boys club.” Davis was ultimately forced to quit in September 1997, they said, because the company had so consistently “belittled” and “discouraged” him. But Short, who tried the case along with Reed Smith attorney Sara A. Begley, told the jury that Davis’s work became erratic by 1988 and that other GA employees were complaining about his overly emotional behavior, including one incident when he threw a stapler across a room full of people. Short argued that Davis had no valid race discrimination claims since his treatment was nearly identical to that of a white man, Michael Freidel, who was demoted on the same day and also took a salary grade decrease. Just like Davis, she said, Freidel was never promoted over the next five years. “They were similarly situated. One was white, one was black, and they were treated equally,” Short told the jury. Short also told the jury that the company listened with open ears to Cousins when he pressed for Davis to get a promotion. But she said Jenkins insisted that Cousins “make a case” for the promotion instead of simply saying that Davis deserved to be returned to his previous salary level. Jenkins and the other vice presidents, she said, believed that Davis did not deserve the promotion. As for Cousins’ accusations against Jenkins — which were made to GA’s EEO officer, Calvin Byrd, who is black — Short told the jury that none of the other supervisors or vice presidents corroborated Cousins’ claim that Jenkins was racist. But Short’s best evidence came from Davis himself. When Davis was asked about Cousins’ lawsuit, she said, he was asked by Byrd: “Have you ever been told that you’ve been referred to in a racial slur?” Davis, she said, answered: “While I’ve been here, I’ve never felt that I was viewed as a black person.” In her cross-examination, Short had asked David about that remark, and she reminded the jury that he dismissed it as a response that he gave because he was “intimidated.” But Short told the jury that Davis’s answer simply didn’t make sense and that the more logical conclusion it should draw was that Davis was telling the truth when he told Byrd he didn’t believe he was the victim of any racism. “It’s one thing to be intimidated and, you know, not say something and hold back, perhaps. One can understand that. But to affirmatively go forward and say, ‘I can honestly tell you that while I’ve been here, I have never felt that I was treated like a black person’ — ask yourself if you’re intimidated, do you go that step further and affirmatively make that kind of statement?” Short asked the jury. The jury deliberated several hours Wednesday before handing up a verdict in which it rejected Davis’s claims under both Title VII and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act. If the verdict had gone the other way, GA was facing the prospect of a huge punitive damages award because Brong had told the jury that the company has annual revenues of $2 billion. Although damage awards under Title VII are now capped, there is no cap on punitive damages awarded under Section 1981. In an interview on Friday, Durbin said that she and Brong were disappointed in the verdict and will be studying the trial record before deciding whether to seek a new trial.

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