Denton County Assistant Criminal DA Nadiya Williams-Boldware
Denton County Assistant Criminal DA Nadiya Williams-Boldware (Thomas Phillips/Texas Lawyer)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Jan. 31 handed Denton County a victory against an African-American prosecutor who had complained of workplace discrimination.

The move has rekindled a long-running dispute that pitted prosecutor against prosecutor and led to four forced resignations

Sidney Powell of Sidney Powell PC in Dallas represents Denton County in Williams-Boldware v. Denton County and welcomed the decision.

“We’re pleased the Fifth Circuit vindicated the prompt remedial action of Denton County and the D.A.,” she said.

But the plaintiff, Nadiya Williams-Boldware, will seek a rehearing en banc, according to Denton solos Christopher David Raesz and William Trantham, who represent her.

“The Fifth Circuit’s reputation for being the most conservative court in the country is well-deserved,” Trantham said.

In a 2009 complaint, Williams-Boldware alleged Cary Piel, then a felony prosecutor, expressed sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, and then later, despite attending diversity training, made an additional comment allegedly mocking that training, thereby helping to create a racially discriminatory and hostile work environment.

An Eastern District of Texas jury agreed and returned a verdict of more than $500,000 in damages against Denton County, the only remaining defendant in the case. U.S. District Judge Ron Clark of Shermanpared that back to $170,000.

But the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment and vacated the damages award. It concluded that a hostile work environment did not exist, in part because Denton County’s response to Williams-Boldware’s initial allegations “could not have been more prompt,” wrote Chief Judge Carl E. Stewart, joined by Judges E. Grady Jolly and Jerry E. Smith.

Stewart wrote that Denton District Attorney Paul Johnson and First Assistant D.A. Jamie Beck met with Williams-Boldware, afforded her “the opportunity to fully explain what she experienced,” and sought “her input on an appropriate response.” The county officials then “verbally reprimanded,” Piel, whom the opinion characterizes as “a self-described ‘redneck,’” and “required that he attend a diversity training,” the opinion states.

Looking Back

Beck, who returned a call to Johnson, said, “We feel confident about how we reacted, and we are pleased the Fifth Circuit agreed.”

The county’s actions, despite the ruling, “were not prompt or effective” in response to his client’s allegation, Trantham said.

Williams-Boldware, who did not return a call seeking comment, now serves as an assistant prosecutor in the family courts. Trantham said she was presently “fine” working in that office.

Williams-Boldware’s workplace situation improved, Trantham said, when in 2012, after the jury verdict, the D.A.asked for the resignations of Piel and three other prosecutors with ties to him: Susan Piel, his wife; Ryan Calvert, his brother-in-law; and John Rentz, a prosecutor who worked as his second in felony court.

Cary Piel, now a criminal-defense lawyer and partner in Denton’s Jackson & Hagen, did not return a call seeking comment.

But Susan Piel, a Denton solo; Calvert, a prosecutor in Brazos County; and Rentz, who has opened The Law Office of John C. Rentz, confirm they were forced to resign. All three said the Fifth Circuit ruling shows the D.A.’s actions causing their involuntarily departures were unwarranted.

“Three days after that trial, despite his glowing praise and his personal knowledge that I had never done anything wrong, Johnson fired me. He did so because, in that moment, he felt it was politically expedient,” Calvert wrote in a letter posted on a Denton resident’s blog that Calvert confirms he wrote.

Calvert also wrote in the same letter, “A judgment … has now been dismissed entirely because, as Paul Johnson well-knew, the case lacked any factual basis from the beginning.”

The Dispute

In 2009, two years after the Denton County D.A.’s Office hired Williams-Boldware as a misdemeanor prosecutor, Cary Piel entered her office to discuss a case involving an African-American woman who allegedly “spewed ‘very racist language’”at police, according to Stewart’s opinion.

“The woman’s actions ‘made him understand why people hung people from trees’ and also made him ‘want to go home and put on his white pointy hat,’” Piel allegedly told Williams-Boldware, who expressed her disapproval.

Within minutes, Piel emailed an apology. But the next day Williams-Boldware reported the incident to her immediate supervisor, the D.A., and Susan Piel, who also supervised her. Williams-Boldware requested a meeting with Cary Piel who offered another apology, which Williams-Boldware deemed not “genuine.”

The first assistant D.A. informed Williams-Boldware that Cary Piel would receive a reprimand and be required to participate in diversity training; the D.A. transferred Williams-Boldware to a different misdemeanor division so that she would no longer report to Piel’s wife.

But a few months later Williams-Boldware allegedly “overheard Cary speaking to someone about his need for a ‘boombox’ to play a tape during a trial” and then add, ” ‘I better watch what I say or else I’ll have to take another one of those classes.’”

The opinion states: “Williams-Boldware believed that Cary was ‘taunting [her] in some fashion in front of [her] coworkers.’” At trial, she testified he “was intimating that the term ‘boombox’ was associated with African-American culture and if he said anything remotely related to African-Americans, he would be required to attend another diversity training.”

But the opinion concludes, “The evidence at trial did not show that the comments were directed at Williams-Boldware or that Cary knew that Williams-Boldware was within earshot when he made the comments.”

Again, according to the opinion, days after the “boombox” comment, Williams-Boldware reported that incident to the D.A. and “for the first time” reported that Rentz called her a “troublemaker.” The D.A. sent Rentz to diversity training, although the Denton County Human Resources Office did not conclude conclusively his comment constituted racial harassment.

In an interview, Rentz, who did not testify at trial, denied making any such comment. He said in the interview that Williams-Boldware may have overheard him tease a legal assistant, as he often did, by calling that assistant a troublemaker when she brought in work for him.

According to the opinion, when Williams-Boldware filed her federal suit on Dec. 1, 2009, she initially named Denton County, Piel, his wife, and Calvert as defendants. But the trial court dismissed the individuals based on their argument that they had qualified immunity as state officials. In an amended complaint filed on Feb. 3, 2010, she alleged her employer engaged in race and color harassment and discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (Title VII).

At a June 2012 trial, the opinion continues, the jury found in favor of Williams-Boldware and awarded damages in the amount of $170,000 on each of her three damage claims, including past mental pain, past physical pain and suffering, and future mental anguish. The district court agreed with the jury, except the judge decided there was “no legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find” for the physical pain or future mental anguish and therefore awarded only $170,000 for past mental anguish.

On appeal, wrote the Fifth Circuit, Denton County claimed trial evidence proved insufficiently that Williams-Boldware experienced a hostile work environment and, even if she did, its prompt remedial action defeats Williams-Boldware’s claim. Williams-Boldware argued that the district court erred by reducing damages and dismissing the individual defendants.

Stewart agreed with Denton County on the insufficient evidence, stating in the ruling that the incident Williams-Boldware alleged “did not involve a protracted outpouring of racially invidious harassment that required large-scale institutional reform.”

In a footnote, Stewart wrote: “Without question, Cary’s initial comments were, at a minimum, racially insensitive. However, whether the ‘boombox’ and ‘troublemaker’ comments constitute racial harassment is unclear. … The conduct was fairly isolated and Williams-Boldware admitted at trial that she never felt threatened or intimidated by Cary.”

Beck said the Denton County D.A.’s Office has not held open the jobs of the four prosecutors, who were asked to resign after the jury verdict.

“Government doesn’t work that way. Those jobs have been filed—not that they would take them anyway,” Beck said.

Her administration, she added, shares “no regrets. This was very difficult with employees suing each other all under the same roof.”