California workplace racial discrimination led to a jury verdict of $137 million against car maker Tesla. The plaintiff, an elevator operator, alleged the auto manufacturer turned a blind eye to racial abuse he suffered as a Black employee.
According to The New York Times, plaintiff worked at the company’s factor in Fremont for about a year. Throughout his tenure, supervisors reportedly used racial slurs repeatedly when referring to him. He was one of the many Black workers interviewed by the Times in 2018 about workplace racial discrimination at the international company.
In interviews, internal communications and sworn legal statements filed by more than two dozen current and former employees and contractors for the country revealed years of serious racial harassment and discrimination reported at the company’s factory in Freemont, CA. The company previously said that in a company of its size, sometimes there would be inevitable “bad behavior,” but insisted there was never any pattern of discrimination or harassment.
Among the incidents reported by employees of color:
- Being assigned to do menial tasks, such as scrubbing floors on their hands and knees, while employees with the same jobs were assigned to do sorting work.
- Repeated, vulgar, racial epithets uttered by supervisors in hearing of Black employees.
- Firing and penalizing Black workers for offenses that workers of other races were not penalized for.
- Taunts of a Black worker’s Southern drawl that eventually morphed into frequent racial slurs and insults.
- Video evidence of employees using a racial slur while threatening a co-worker.
- Repeated instances of Black workers not being promoted, with one worker reportedly told outright by a manufacturing supervisor that “people like you” don’t get promoted. One supervisor was overheard saying there were “too many of them” (referring to Black employees) at the company and that they “are not Tesla material.”
- A racist effigy appeared on a cardboard bale, following other instances of offensive graffiti (including derogatory caricatures of Black children).
The $137 million jury verdict involves just one of those cases. Jurors agreed with plaintiff that the work environment had become racially hostile and the employer failed to stop it despite repeated complaints.
Worth noting is that $7 million in damages was for past and future non-economic damages. The bulk of the award was in punitive damages against the business. Punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer and deter dangerous conduct. California law allows plaintiffs to recover punitive damages when they can show by a standard of clear and convincing evidence that the defendant caused plaintiff’s injuries by way of malice, oppression, fraud, intentional harm, or extreme recklessness.
In response to the verdict, a spokeswoman for the company issued a statement indicating that it had responded to plaintiff’s complaints by terminating two contractors and suspending another. The company disagreed with the verdict, but acknowledged it is “not perfect,” despite having “come a long way.”
California Lawsuits for Racial Discrimination
As this case illustrates, employers who discriminate against workers based on their race or ethnicity or fail to address harassment on the same basis can be held liable for the resulting damages in civil litigation.
Racial and ethnic discrimination refers to when people are treated differently because of their heritage, where they were born, or the way they look/color of their skin. Racial and ethnic discrimination can overlap, but it’s all illegal in California under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). This statute makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person in any aspect of employment including hiring, selecting for special training, promotion, firing, etc.
Racial discrimination in the workplace isn’t always as blatant as what’s been alleged at Tesla. Sometimes it’s excluding employees of one race from work meetings or events. Sometimes it’s making fun of an accent or teasing about stereotypes (and employers that fail to address these types of remarks or behaviors). It could be altering work duties or sudden changes in performance reviews. Some successful racial discrimination cases have stemmed from companies that failed to consider job applicants with ethnic-sounding names.
If you think you may have been the victim of racial discrimination on-the-job, we can help.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Tesla must pay $137 million in discrimination lawsuit, Oct. 5, 2021, By Steve Dent, Tech Crunch