A federal jury on Monday awarded a $2.35 million racial discrimination verdict to a machine operator at a Domino Sugar plant in Yonkers.
The verdict, which came after a four-day trial in Manhattan, was the second multimillion-dollar discrimination verdict against the plant in the last two months.
On March 2—in a verdict the plaintiff’s counsel said was a “loud and clear” message in the #MeToo era—a separate federal jury in the Southern District of New York awarded $13.4 million to a storeroom worker who suffered sexual harassment at the plant.
While the plaintiffs in the separate lawsuits did not previously know each other, and while their supervisors at the sugar refinery plant were different, what tied together the cases—along with their lawyers’ presentations to juries—was management’s sweeping away of discrimination complaints for years, said Nathaniel Charny, lawyer to both plaintiffs.
“I think this case is a lot less about the underlying conduct,” Charny said on Tuesday in an interview focused on the racial-discrimination case lodged on behalf of worker Claude Lewis. “What the jury really responded to was, again, management’s inaction in the face of discriminatory conduct by their management team.”
Added plaintiffs lawyer Megan Goddard, of Goddard Law in Manhattan, in a statement Tuesday, “The company’s failure to respond to Mr. Lewis’ complaints of race/national origin discrimination and retaliation was remarkable given the facts of this case.”
Goddard also represented both plaintiffs in the two trials; she and Charny were co-counsel.
The company has argued it did address complaints from Lewis, and that when discrimination is alleged at its workplace, it reacts with alarm and purpose.
“We disagree with this verdict and plan to appeal,” said Peter O’Malley, vice president of corporate relations, American Sugar Refining Inc., in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring a culture of respect for all of our employees and, over the past several months, we have been reviewing our HR policies and procedures to strengthen our employees’ awareness of and training on our Code of Conduct.”
In Lewis’ case, he became a full-time employee at the plant—which was run by defendant American Sugar Holding Inc., the parent company of Domino Sugar—in 1988. For decades he worked his way through the ranks, earning positive performance reviews, until eventually he became a machine operator in processing, meaning that he helped produce the sugar, according to Charny.
It was the highest-ranking position Lewis had attained but, in 2011, he came to work under supervisor Mehandra Ramphal, another of the named defendants in the suit.
Ramphal soon, and repeatedly, made it clear to Lewis that he preferred Guyanese workers over workers of other races, according to Goddard, Charny and court documents. And he allegedly also made it clear that he looked down upon African-American workers, such as Lewis.
“Only Guyanese people know how to make sugar,” Ramphal allegedly complained to Lewis. “Guyanese people have sugar-making in their DNA,” he also said, the suit claimed.
In reference to black people, he allegedly told Lewis, “You people ask too many questions,” and “You people are stupid,” according to the lawyers and court documents.
In addition, the suit claimed Ramphal distributed overtime unfairly to other workers and not as much to Lewis, even though it was a key part of Lewis’ compensation. And he subjected Lewis to screaming, cursing and harassment, the lawyers and court documents said.
In turn, Lewis complained to management a half-dozen or more times, beginning in 2011, about what he viewed as discriminatory treatment, Charny said in the phone interview. Lewis lodged both verbal and written complaints, including by filing grievances under his union’s collective bargaining agreement. But nothing was done, Charny said.
Eventually, unable to handle the mistreatment, Lewis put in for a transfer to a lower-paying warehouse position, Charny said, and later he moved to sanitation—a position he disliked.
At trial, Goddard and Charny called to the stand a processing-area co-worker of Lewis’ who had gone to a processing manager ranked above Ramphal to complain about Ramphal’s mistreatment of Lewis.
But the co-worker testified that the manager did nothing and instead responded by saying only, “I won’t go against my supervisors,” according to Charny’s recounting of the trial.
The eight-person jury returned a unanimous verdict late on Monday afternoon. It included actual damages of $104,000; compensatory damages of $250,000; and punitive damages of $2 million, according to a verdict sheet signed by the jury foreperson.
But the punitive damages are expected to be reduced majorly under a federal statutory cap on such punitive damages awards.
In a statement Tuesday, Charny, of Charny and Associates in Rhinebeck, called for legislators to change the “antiquated” statutory cap.
“The outdated damages cap was established over 25 years ago in 1991, making it impossible for justice to be served in these kinds of workplace discrimination cases,” he said, adding, “Policy reform is long overdue.”
But speaking of the trial and how he believed jurors responded to the facts presented by him and Goddard, Charny also said, “Juries are responding to what is actually happening in the workplace. They’re not responding to lawyerly arguments.”
He added, “This jury followed along with the [factual] timeline, and they followed the relationship between the discriminatory conduct and then the failure to act by management—and the jury perceived and concluded that the [management behavior] was a coordinated campaign to get rid of the problem, to retaliate.”
Michael Thomas Hensley, a partner at Bressler, Amery & Ross in Manhattan, represented defendants American Sugar and Ramphal at the trial before Judge Claire Kelly. He referred questions to American Sugar’s corporate relations office. A call to corporate relations at American Sugar was not returned.