Earlier this month, a California Court of Appeals upheld a $500,000 jury verdict in favor of an employee for disability harassment.
Augustine Caldera has a speech impediment that causes him to stutter when he speaks. He began his career as a correctional officer at a state prison in 1994 but later transferred to the administrative segregation unit of the prison. This was when a sergeant in the unit began mocking and mimicking Caldera’s stutter. Caldera noted on three occasions that this occurred in front of a large number of employees.
On one occasion, James Grove mimicked Caldera’s stutter over the prison’s broadcast system immediately after Caldera made an announcement. Once Caldera was off the radio, Grove took over and mimicked what Caldera had just previously said. This announcement, and Grove’s mocking of it, was heard by about 50 employees within the facility. Immediately after this happened, another employee commented on the situation, to which Caldera responded, “[Y]eah, I get it all the time.”
On another occasion, in September of 2008, about 24 prison employees were present during a busy shift change in the main corridor of the prison. Caldera said something to Grove, which Grove responded to by saying, “F-f-f-f**k you.” It was then that Caldera threatened to file a formal complaint against Grove for his harassing behavior, to which Grove replied, “I don’t give a F-f-f. Make sure you get my name right.” One week later, Caldera filed an internal equal employment opportunity complaint against Grove based on this incident.
Lastly, the following month, the prison’s supervisors attended a training class in early October. During that training class, this same sergeant began mimicking Caldera’s speech impediment again, saying, “I don’t give a f**k” about Caldera.
Dr. Victor Jordan, a psychologist supervisor in the same administrative segregation unit, testified that he had personally heard employees within the unit mock or mimic Caldera’s stutter on dozens of occasions. Further, Jordan testified that such conduct against Caldera was so pervasive that it became part of the prison’s culture.
Caldera then brought suit against his employer, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and Grove for disability harassment, failure to prevent the harassment, and related claims. A jury concluded that there was sufficient evidence to prove severe and pervasive harassment by the sergeant against Caldera in the workplace and that the employer’s actions to stop the harassment were ineffective. Based on these determinations, the jury awarded Caldera $500,000 in non-economic damages.
This case raises a very difficult question: When does a joking work atmosphere become harassing or hostile-or both? It is important for an employer to take reasonable and effective steps to avoid and end any potential harassing or bullying behavior. Moreover, it is equally as important that those steps by the employer actually do avoid and end such behavior.