A federal judge has slashed a jury assessment against Denton County that was awarded to an assistant district attorney in a racial discrimination lawsuit.
The award fell from $510,000 to $170,000, because, the judge wrote in an Aug. 10 ruling, the law did not support her claims in two out of three instances in which jurors awarded her money.
Assistant District Attorney Nadiya Williams-Boldware filed suit in 2009 alleging that then-prosecutor Cary Piel made racially insulting comments in her presence, and that two other prosecutors made comments that hurt her feelings, causing a hostile work environment.
In June, a federal jury found for Williams-Boldware, who is black, and awarded her $170,000 for past mental distress, $170,000 for past physical pain and suffering, and $170,000 for future mental distress and damage to her reputation.
The county’s attorney then asked the judge to set aside the jury’s verdict as a matter of law.
In his 22-page answer to the request, U.S. District Judge Ron Clark indicated that if the county’s attorney had filed a request for a summary judgment (asking the judge to apply the law to the facts of the case) before it went to trial, the summary judgment likely would have been granted, ending the case with no liability to the county before it went to a jury.
“However, the county did not file such a motion, so the case was submitted to a jury. This means that the court must draw all inferences in favor of Ms. Boldware and may not make the credibility determinations urged by defendant in its motion,” he wrote.
Clark revoked the awards for physical pain and suffering and for future mental distress, but upheld the jury’s decision for past mental distress.
“The county moves to set aside the jury verdict, asserting that the April 2  incident was not sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to affect a term, condition or privilege of Ms. Boldware’s employment. … Alternatively, the county argues that, even if the April incident was sufficiently severe, it took prompt remedial action to combat the alleged racial harassment,” the judge wrote.
But the testimony of District Attorney Paul Johnson and First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck, and particularly the statements of the county’s own contracted lawyer, Dallas attorney Tom Brandt, who was supposed to be defending Piel as well, ruined the county’s chances of winning that argument, the judge wrote.
The judge made a chart showing that during the three-day trial, Brandt made statements 28 times that Piel’s comments were “racially, horribly inappropriate, insensitive, offensive, horrendous, not proper and not acceptable.”
The chart also showed that Johnson testified 21 times that Piel’s comments were offensive, including 14 times in which he said the remarks justified immediate termination. Beck testified twice that the remarks justified termination.
“In an evident effort to win the jury’s favor by showing empathy with and sympathy for Ms. Boldware, defendant employed the strategy of repeatedly acknowledging the severity of Piel’s April 2 remarks,” the judge wrote. “Defendant gambled that this approach would convince jurors that neither the county nor the district attorney tolerated racism, which would lead to a favorable jury verdict. Defendant now moves for JMOL [judgment as a matter of law] on the grounds that Piel’s remarks were not so severe or pervasive as to affect a term condition or privilege of Ms. Boldware’s employment.
“A party should not be heard to complain when a carefully chosen weapon backfires.”
Beck, the first assistant district attorney, said in an e-mail response to a question about the lawsuit that Williams-Boldware still works for the district attorney and was recently offered her choice of positions within the office, but she chose to remain in her current position in the Child Protective Services division.
Williams-Boldware alleged in her suit that she had been denied promotion because of the hostile work environment in which she toiled. Evidence showed she had asked for only one promotion during that time and was promoted.
Beck said the lawsuit was against Denton County, not the district attorney, and she could not comment on it.
County Judge Mary Horn said she could not comment except to say that commissioners would be briefed on the judge’s ruling during an executive session Tuesday.
Lead plaintiff’s attorney Bill Trantham, who, along with lawyer Chris Raez, represented Williams-Boldware, did not respond to a telephone message asking for comment on the reduced monetary award.
The issue centered on remarks Piel made in Williams-Boldware’s presence while he was trying a case against a black defendant who fought with police and used racial slurs against them after drunkenly driving a car through a cemetery, destroying several gravestones. Piel, after watching a video of the arrest, said he could understand why people formerly were hung from trees and mentioned donning “a white pointy hat.”
Piel apologized to Williams-Boldware several times after that, but she did not accept his apology and later filed the lawsuit.
She complained to Beck and Johnson, and Piel was told to attend a racial diversity class, which he did. The county’s human resource director approved the move as proper action.
Williams-Boldware testified for five hours in the trial in June and the jury decided in her favor June 21. On June 25, Johnson called in Piel; his wife, Susan, who supervised the misdemeanor section of the district attorney’s office; assistant district attorney John Rentz, whom Williams-Boldware said she overheard calling her a troublemaker; and Susan Piel’s brother, Ryan Calvert. Williams-Boldware’s lawsuit alleged that Calvert said at a birthday party for her that he’d better leave or he might say something that would get him sent to a sensitivity class. But Williams-Boldware admitted during her testimony that Calvert did not attend her birthday celebration.
Calvert said in a later interview that he made no racial comment about Williams-Boldware and never mentioned a diversity class, but told a co-worker in another part of the building from the party that he would not attend because he might offend her. He had said Williams-Boldware was sensitive and easily offended.
When the prosecutors met with him after the county lost the suit, Johnson told them that he wanted their immediate resignations or they would be fired. They complied.
In upholding the $170,000 award to Williams-Boldware for past emotional anguish, Clark wrote that the jury could legally have concluded that Piel’s comments caused her distress. The judge wrote that Rentz’s calling her a troublemaker could legally be considered to have caused her distress.
“Even though the term ‘troublemaker’ is not in and of itself a racially derogatory term, a reasonable jury could have concluded that based on the context, the term was directly connected to and supportive of Piel’s remarks and attitude,” he wrote.
The district attorney’s response to the offensive remarks and Williams-Boldware’s complaint was swift, the judge wrote. But Johnson’s own testimony, including the 14 times he said Piel’s remarks were a firing offense, indicated that he did not do enough to punish Piel.
Later, Piel mentioned a boombox in Williams-Boldware’s hearing and then commented that he had better not use the term or he would be taking another diversity class.
“A reasonable jury could also have found that the July 16 [boombox] incident showed that the remedial action taken was ineffective,” the judge wrote.
In denying the award for physical harm, the judge wrote that Williams-Boldware testified that she suffered shingles and hair loss after Piel made the comments. But she presented no evidence tying those symptoms directly to the comments, he wrote.
Hurt feelings and frustration are a part of life, he wrote. “A plaintiff’s vague allegations will not establish the existence of an injury.”
The jury decided the county should pay Williams-Boldware’s lawyers’ fees. The county has objected to paying for her attorney fees, and the judge has yet to rule on that issue.
DONNA FIELDER can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.