Medro Johnson (Photo: AP)
Some say that workplace racism today is less overt and more subtle than in the past, however, one man from Sacramento, California, found out that isn’t always the case.
A Sacramento Superior Court last week awarded former Sears Home Improvement Products employee Medro Johnson $5.2 million in damages after he endured humiliating racial slurs, physical abuse and harassment by a co-worker who received no reprimand for his actions.
The incidents began in 2008 when Johnson, 49, attended a company barbeque with his family. At the event, co-worker Paul St. Hilaire walked up to the Johnson family and told Johnson’s wife and children, “Medro calls me 'masta.'”
Johnson says he was humiliated and complained to supervisors about the comment, but no action was taken. Johnson said that he was told that if he brought his complaint to the attention of human resources, he would be fired.
Later, when Johnson and St. Hilaire exchanged tense words on a separate occasion, St. Hilaire threatened, "I'm going to get you and you're not going to see it coming."
The final straw for Johnson came in December of 2008 when St. Hilaire repeatedly "bashed" Johnson with his shoulder during breaks in a company training session. St. Hilaire called Johnson the "N" word and criticized him repeatedly, and at one point knocked Johnson's hot cup of coffee down the front of his shirt.
In retaliation, Johnson struck St. Hilaire in the lip with the back of his hand. The company fired Johnson two days later. No disciplinary action was taken against St. Hilaire, who was known as one of the company’s top sales producers.
"I've been in a constant struggle since 2008," Johnson told The Sacramento Bee. "Once we depleted all our savings, our retirement, our kids' college fund, then it got really tough. It's scary before you get down to the end. Then it's tough when you try to figure out how you're going to make ends meet and, at the same time, fight this battle against this huge corporation that doesn't really care about you."
The breakdown of the $5.2 million award includes $2.2 million to compensate for lost earnings, pain and suffering and $3 million for punitive damages, because the jury found that Sears' policymakers and managers conducted themselves "with malice, oppression or fraud" in failing to investigate or to act on Johnson's complaints.
"I feel like justice was served, and I would hope that the award will send a message to Sears and that they will change their behavior so no one has to suffer like I had to suffer over these years," Johnson said.
Sears had no comment except to say that it was "very disappointed in the verdict" and that it planned to explore post-trial options, including an appeal.