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Race Discrimination And Retaliation? Pay My $1 Million In Lawyer Fees!

Last month, a Connecticut federal judge awarded $1 million in attorney’s fees to a Walmart employee who won a jury verdict earlier last year on claims he was retaliated against for complaining of race discrimination.

Plaintiff Michael Barham, an African-American, alleged Walmart discriminated against him by not rehiring him for open jobs after he had previously been laid off.

Barham had worked as a market asset protection manager in Waterford, Connecticut, until he and others, many African-American, were laid off in April 2010 as a result of the failing economy.  He alleged the company’s reasons for the layoffs were pretextual and the company only hired non-black workers when similar positions were opened.  Barham himself applied more than a dozen times for open jobs equivalent to the one he had lost, but was turned down every time.  In his suit, he alleged the company deemed him and others “unhirable” because they felt they were laid off due to their race and complained about it.

In March 2017 a jury awarded him punitive and noneconomic damages of $5.5 million, estimated to be a record award in the state.  However, since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act sets a limit on the amount of damages recoverable depending on the size of the company, this amount was reduced to $300,000.

In two separate orders, U.S. District Judge Victor A. Bolden awarded attorney’s fees and costs of roughly $1 million and prejudgment interest of $15,645 to Barham.  In their argument against paying Barham’s attorney’s fees, Walmart argued Barham’s counsel had racked up hours working on claims that were ultimately unsuccessful and charged an overly high hourly rate.  Judge Bolden disagreed, finding Barham’s jury win warranted a fee award, and a $500 hourly rate was reasonable considering his attorney’s “level of skill, experience and relative success.”

Employers should take note of this case.  When a company is found to have engaged in discrimination and/or retaliation, the company’s liability does not necessarily end with damages.  You cannot rely on the limits imposed by Title VII to save your wallet when attorney’s fees are on the table.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203-454-0560.