North Carolina’s transportation department allowed a racially hostile workplace but won’t have to pay damages to black workers who sued after a white co-worker hung a noose in a maintenance shop, a federal jury decided Wednesday.
Seven black workers alleged in the civil rights suit that white supervisors did nothing about the situation even after learning of the noose. They said the rope remained on display for 35 days in 2002 beginning Feb. 1, the start of Black History Month.
The plaintiffs had sought an unspecified amount of monetary damages, but one said that wasn’t the chief reason for the suit.
“It’s definitely a victory, because we set out to say it was a hostile work environment, and it was. So, I think we proved what we set out to prove,” James Mitchell said.
Lawyers for the Department of Transportation argued the state agency should not be held responsible because upper managers didn’t learn of the noose until the employees filed a civil rights complaint one month after it went up.
While the state escaped a potentially expensive payout, the transportation department’s personnel director didn’t celebrate the jury’s decision.
“I don’t consider it a victory for either side,” Herb Henderson said. “From my perspective, I’m sorry we had to be here.”
Plaintiffs may appeal
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Al McSurely said his clients have 30 days to appeal, and will decide whether to do so after consulting political and civil rights groups that have supported the lawsuit.
A Federal Highway Administration investigation found that the state transportation department failed to meet basic requirements of federal anti-discrimination regulations and faulted it for not putting enough emphasis on fair employment.
The state department will continue to provide diversity training and other tools to make workplaces more tolerant, Henderson said.
‘The healing process begins now’
“We’re going to make sure that environment is conducive to success,” Henderson said shortly after the verdict was delivered. “The healing process begins now.”
No one lost their job as a result of the noose incident, although the worker accused of hanging the noose has left. Raymond Powell testified during the trial that he stopped working at the shop because of a disabling injury.
Last year, Wake County’s district attorney declined to file criminal charges in the case, saying there was no evidence the noose was used to intimidate.