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Beware ill-chosen words, which–all by ­themselves–can sometimes launch lawsuits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Sometimes, a single poorly chosen phrase can generate large legal bills.

Recent case: Conny Hatch, who is black, worked as a teacher’s assistant at a Del Valle school for students with behavioral challenges. His super­visor warned him he needed to spend less time sitting at his desk, remove his sunglasses in class and not eat in front of students.

Hatch apparently didn’t take the advice seriously. He complained that he was being discriminated against.

Then one day, the teacher in the classroom he was assisting had to step out and told Hatch to take over while she was gone. This was a common task for teachers’ assistants. At the time, the students were winding down a painting project and were told to return to their desks. When the teacher returned, the students were engaged in a paint fight and Hatch was clearly not in control.

He was eventually fired over the ­incident.

He sued, alleging he had been set up—a victim of retaliation for complaining about discrimination. His evidence: The supervisor allegedly said Hatch had “taken the bait” when the teacher left the room.

The supervisor was able to explain away the phrase under oath, telling the court that she meant he took the “bait” in the sense that he didn’t use independent judgment when the teacher left the classroom to control the environment.

The court dismissed Hatch’s lawsuit. (Hatch v. Del Valle Independent School District, No. A-10-CA-453, WD TX, 2011)

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