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Warn bosses: Bias could mean punitive damages

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Warn decision-makers who decide to act on their own, ignoring HR’s guidance: Juries can hold them personally liable for legal missteps—and make them pay punitive damages.

Recent case: Finance Coordinator Sharon Sanders was one of just two white administrators at the Lee County Board of Education.

After an election tipped the school board’s racial composition to majority black, the board transferred both white administrators to other jobs. Sanders was told to report to food service, where she would henceforth be a food service assistant. Her fellow white administrator lost his superintendent job and became the assistant superintendent of transportation.

The board didn’t call its attorney, consult the district manual or seek any advice before acting.

Sanders went out on sick leave and requested her new job description. Months later, she still hadn’t received one. Instead, the board ordered her back on threat of termination.

Sanders instead quit and sued. A jury awarded her $60,000 in back pay—and then assessed punitive damages against the school board members who voted to demote her. They appealed, arguing they weren’t liable.

The court disagreed. It said everyone knows that discriminating against someone based on race is illegal and the fact that they never met with an attorney, consulted the district handbook or otherwise investigated their legal obligations was enough to show they acted with callous disregard for Sanders’ rights. (Sanders v. Lee County, No. 10-3240, 8th Cir., 2012)

Final note: The court also concluded Sanders was constructively discharged. By transferring her to a job requiring far less skill and education than her old one (and keeping her in the dark about what her job duties were), the board made her job intolerable, forcing her to quit.

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