In an unusual but welcome move, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Ash v. Tyson Foods has reversed its own decision in a race discrimination case. The court had overturned a jury verdict against Tyson Foods related to employment bias at a plant in Gadsden, Alabama. A brief filed by a retired Alabama federal judge and a group of civil rights leaders urged the court to reconsider its ruling. More than a year after its last ruling, the court reversed itself, albeit grudgingly. The New York Times’ coverage on the decision can be viewed here.
This case has made its way through the appellate courts several times over the years. Two black employees at the Tyson plant, Anthony Ash and John Hithon, alleged discrimination based on race when they were passed over for promotion in favor of two white employees. The plaintiffs further alleged that their manager created a hostile work environment by frequently referring to adult black male employees as “boy.” They filed suit based on, among other causes of action, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the case went to trial in 2002, the jury awarded the plaintiffs over $1.4 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Following the jury verdict, the employer first appealed the case to the Eleventh Circuit. A three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit unanimously affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding that the evidence presented at trial was not sufficient to establish unlawful discrimination or to support the damage award. It held that the manager’s use of the word “boy,” in the absence of an adjective such as “black” or “white” is not in and of itself evidence of discriminatory intent. In 2006, the Supreme Court unanimously vacated the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case, rebuking the court for its finding regarding the manager’s language. The Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion noted that the circuit court should have considered factors like “context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom, and historical usage.”
At this point, Hithon pursed the case on his own, without Ash. When the Eleventh Circuit heard the case again, this time in 2010, it reached a conclusion similar to its earlier finding. In a 2-1 ruling, the court held that the manager’s use of the word “boy” was “conversational” and “nonracial in context,” and it once again mostly reversed the trial court’s verdict. Once again, the Eleventh Circuit’s controversial ruling caught the attention of the New York Times in this article.
The Eleventh Circuit’s new ruling once again overlooked evidence beyond the words themselves. Testimony at trial by the plaintiffs and other witnesses established the connotation that the word “boy” evinces. Ash, for instance, told the jury that “being in the South, and everybody know [sic] being in the South, a white man says ‘boy’ to a black man, that’s an offensive word.”