Teacher Fired for Racial Comments Wins Jury Verdict after Showing He Was Treated Differently from Others of Different Races

Category: Private Education Matters
Date: Dec 23, 2014 05:05 PM

National Heritage Academies is a for-profit company that runs charter schools nation-wide.  One of these schools is Linden Charter Academy, whose student population is 93% African-American. Craig Hecht is a white male teacher who worked at Linden since 2001. 

On November 3, 2009, Hecht was in his classroom with students and Floyd Bell, an African-American special education professional assigned to the class.  Lisa Code, a white woman, came to the room to return a table she had borrowed.  She had borrowed a brown table, but the one she brought back was white.  She asked Hecht if he cared that the table was white.  Hecht said he liked the white table better and that "all of the brown" needed to go. Code was taken aback. Hecht indicated he was joking, but Code reported the incident to Corinne Weaver, the dean of Linden.

Floyd Bell also reported the incident.  Hecht explained he had not meant any racist intent and was simply joking the way he heard other employees joke frequently.  Weaver contacted Linda Caine-Smith, the school principal.  Caine-Smith asked Hecht, Bell, and Code to prepare written statements about the incident.  Caine-Smith also reported the incident to Courtney Unwin, the employee relations manager at National Heritage's main headquarters. 

Unwin informed Hecht that there would be an investigation into the incident and that his dismissal was an option.  Hecht was placed on administrative leave.  According to Bell, Hecht approached him and asked him to change his written statement to help preserve Hecht's job.  Hecht also left phone messages for Code, but she did not call him back.  After learning about Hecht's attempts to interfere with Bell and Code's statements, Unwin decided to terminate Hecht not only because he made improper racial statements, but also because he interfered with the investigation of the incident.

Hecht filed a complaint alleging racial discrimination in violation of state law. He claimed race was a substantial factor in the decision to terminate Hecht and that he was treated less favorably than African-American employees who joked about race.  The jury agreed and awarded Hecht $535,120.  National Heritage Academies appealed, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict and the trial court erred in denying their motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV).

Under the state law, proof of discriminatory treatment may be established by direct evidence or circumstantial evidence.  Hecht asserted that racial bantering occurred at the school on many occasions, but when African-Americans engaged in the bantering they were not punished.  The only direct evidence of this was a statement by Caine-Smith that Weaver claims she heard.  According to Weaver, Caine-Smith said that she knows the bantering occurs, but it is under "different circumstances."  Weaver stated that Caine-Smith's point was that it generally occurred among the African-American employees. 

The court found that Hecht's race was part of the equation in the decision to fire him.  A single remark regarding discriminatory intent and the weight of that remark are matters for the jury to determine.  Here the jury determined race was a factor and awarded damages to Hecht accordingly. 

The court explained that reversal of a denial of a JNOV is only warranted if the evidence, while viewed in a light most favorable to Hecht, fails to establish a claim.  But when reasonable jurors could honestly reach different conclusions regarding the evidence, then the jury verdict must stand. 

It was the jury's job to interpret the statement made by Weaver attributed to Caine-Smith regarding treating different instances of racial bantering differently.  Evidence showed that no African-American employees were disciplined for racial bantering even though the dean herself was the target of such bantering on previous occasions. This constituted sufficient evidence to determine that Hecht was similarly situated to African-American employees who had made racial remarks at school but were not disciplined.  The trial court thus properly denied the school's JNOV and Hecht's jury award stood.

Note:

While the focus of this case is racial discrimination, it also presents an important lesson regarding investigations.  Here, Hecht was fired not just for his comments, but because he tried to interfere in the investigation process. Employees who are the subject of an investigation should be given clear direction that they are not to interfere with the investigatory process in any way, and that doing so could subject them to further discipline

Hecht v. National Heritage Academies, Inc. 2014 WL 5462560

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