Henry Jury Awards $2.6M to Target of Racial Slurs
Co-workers witnessing treatment at auto parts company were 'horrified'
Following a trial featuring testimony detailing unrelenting racist verbal abuse targeting a worker at an auto parts business, a Henry County jury ordered the business and its owner to pay more than $2.6 million, including $925,000 in punitive damages and $290,470 in attorney fees.
According to court documents and plaintiff's attorney Mitchell Benjamin, the case is unusual because the defendant, Michael Bell, made no effort to conceal his racist attacks on his former employee, Michael Cooper, and encouraged other employees to join in.
"What's interesting is that there were witnesses," said Benjamin. "In these cases, you always hear about things that may have been said; but this guy Bell ... he'd say these things right in front of other people and laugh, and a lot of these people were horrified."
Bell and his company, M&S Auto Parts of Fayettevile, are represented by McDonough solos LeAnne Cooper (who is no relation to plaintiff Cooper) and Tamika Fluker, who did not respond to telephone or email requests for comment. Defense filings deny that Michael Cooper was ever subjected to "any discriminatory or harassing conduct" at Bell's hands, nor would he "knowingly allow such conduct to take place."
Michael Cooper was terminated after missing nearly two months of work due to an injury and illness, the defense portion of the pretrial order said, and was offered an opportunity to return to work, which he declined.
Court filings paint a picture of a workplace where Bell frequently—and in front of other people—referred to Michael Cooper as "my nigger," and where other employees and even customers were derided in similarly profane terms. M&S' customers are primarily African-American and Hispanic, according to Benjamin.
Michael Cooper, 60, is a single father who suffers from multiple medical conditions, Benjamin said, and was willing to take the abuse and even threats of physical violence in order to keep his job at M&S.
"He was making $1,000 a week; that's good money for someone who's partially disabled," said Benjamin, who represents Cooper with Billips & Benjamin partner Matthew Billips.
According to Benjamin and court filings, Michael Cooper's feet had been severely burned in 2004, requiring several surgeries and rendering him eligible for Social Security disability benefits, which he collected for a time. Cooper had previous experience as a car salesman, and in January 2007 Bell hired him, paying him $500 for a six-day work-week plus $100 for every car he sold.
When he was hired, Cooper told Bell he was disabled, "had medical issues and had problems doing heavy physical work," and was assured "that the job didn't require strenuous labor."