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An African-American auto mechanic from New Britain, Conn., who was found to be the victim of racial discrimination, was awarded more than $17,000 in backpay and more than $30,000 in front pay by the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. In the CHRO ruling in Smith v. Lee d/b/a Better Built Transmissions, complainant Alex Smith, 38, was able to establish by a preponderance of evidence that he was subjected to a hostile work environment. According to the July 27 ruling written by CHRO Referee Jon Fitzgerald, Smith’s boss and the owner of the garage, Tony Lee, refused to stop a daily routine of racial epithets and jokes, including referring to Smith as his “new nigger” and a “clean nigger.” Smith was also able to prove that his employer assigned more work to him than to white employees. Smith worked for Lee only from Aug. 14 to Aug. 25, 2000. The CHRO called Smith’s resignation a “constructive discharge,” recognizing that an employee’s “voluntary” resignation may be deemed, in certain circumstances, a dismissal by an employer. Smith, who previously worked at Smith Brothers Transmission in Plainville, Conn., for eight years, had been recruited by Lee for at least a year for a promised wage of $24 per hour. However, when, in August 2000, Smith left Smith Brothers where he had been making $20 per hour, Lee paid him only $19 per hour. The backpay award represents the income that Smith would have earned at the promised rate of $24 per hour from the date of termination to the date of the decision. The front pay represents the difference in income between what Smith would have earned had he stayed with his previous employer and his actual income until the date of the decision. The CHRO calculated front pay on the basis that that it would take Smith two years — until July 2003 — to achieve the seniority to earn the $24 per hour promised by Lee. The front pay award was an unusual remedy for the agency. “We wouldn’t say it’s rare, but it’s not the norm either,” said CHRO spokeswoman Lena Ferguson. Plaintiffs’ employment lawyer and Connecticut Bar Association President Barbara Collins said, however, that front pay awards from the CHRO were few and far between. Collins was not directly involved in the Smith case. David Kent handled the case for the CHRO. “The CHRO is more restricted in its remedies,” Collins said. “I think you’ll see it is a rarity for the CHRO. The [complaint] must have been specific enough for the CHRO to figure out a rationale for awarding front pay. I am glad to see that they are doing it.” Lee, who, the CHRO noted, has a parking sign posted at Better Built Transmissions for “rebels only” and a decal entitled “redneck” prominently displayed on his front windshield, was ordered to pay Smith $17,536 for backpay and $30,960 in front pay for “illegally discriminating” against Smith. He was also ordered to pay Smith $400 in backpay for the difference between the $24 an hour Smith was promised and the $19 per hour he was actually paid for the period of his employment with Better Built. New Britain attorney Robert McKay, of Davila & Dilzer, who represented Smith, said although his client had some indications that Lee fostered a white supremacist outlook, Smith believed Lee’s assurances that he would be treated well if he left his job at Smith Brothers. “It’s the most obvious case of [racial discrimination] I’ve seen up here in Connecticut,” McKay said. “It’s amazing that this kind of thing still happens.” Lee, who failed to show up for the hearing, was also ordered to pay the CHRO for $1,884 in unemployment compensation paid to Smith and for interest on the front and backpay and to “cease and desist from the practices” complained about by Smith. “[Lee] offered no legitimate, nondiscriminatory business reason for [his] actions,” Fitzgerald wrote. “[Lee] failed both to answer the complaint and to attend the hearing. Therefore, [Smith] has established by a preponderance of the evidence that he was subjected to a hostile work environment created by racial harassment.” Smith proved that Lee taunted him by pushing him and saying, “You think you can beat this big redneck?” after Smith complained to him about being called a “clean nigger” when changing into clean clothes. Smith also complained that Lee told racial jokes and called him a “nigger” in front of customers. “As [Lee] continued his racial epithets despite [Smith's] requests that he stop, [Smith's] only alternatives were to continue working for the respondent or to quit,” Fitzgerald wrote of Smith quitting and termed it “constructive discharge.” Ferguson said Lee has the right to appeal the CHRO decision to the Superior Court. She added that if Lee fails to pay his former employee, Smith could also force the issue in Superior Court.

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