$1.67M Verdict for Retaliatory Discharge of Prison Employee

Posted by msch on Jul 8, 2011 7:26:00 PM

Stephen Horvath and Bruce Reynolds in Hughes v CalforniaHughes v. State of California (Los Angeles, California)

Lieutenant Charles Hughes was a union leader discharged by the California State Prison system from his job at the prison in Lancaster in retaliation for his reporting illegal racial segregation of inmates and other racial discrmination, a Los Angles jury has found.

Plaintiff attorney Stephen J. Horvath told the jury in closing argument that the Department had an unwritten blanket policy to segregate inmates by race. Lieutenant Hughes testified before the California State Senate about segregated conditions in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisons. In addition, Hughes subsequently complained about a rat-with-a-target display seen in the prison warden's office (allegedly encouraging a code of silence), and a comedy performance rife with racial epithets.

Although Hughes had a lengthy and "stellar" career with promotions and excellent evaluations, soon after the complaints, he was discharged soon thereafter based on three adverse actions in rapid succession, for using profanity at work and not following policies after a prisoner was murdered.

Representing the Department of Corrections, deputy Attorney General Bruce Reynolds told the jury that Lieutenant Hughes was not retaliated against, but brought the adverse actions upon himself by his own conduct. There was no direct evidence from any employee or decision-maker -- statements, emails, text messages, or otherwise -- stating that they wanted to get rid of Mr. Hughes because of his complaints, or indicating the presence of a conspiracy.

The circumstantial evidence, said Reynolds, was inadequate to show retaliation, because the Department had a legitimate, non-discriminatory explanation for its actions. The extensive procedural checks associated with the discpline of a public employee ensured the credibility of the proferred reasons for the adverse action, said Reynolds. Reynolds characterized Hughes as "a top-notch complainer, the king of complaints," who attempted to hide behind his complaints to avoid the consequences of his job performance.

The jury found that the plaintiff engaged in communications protected by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and that some of those communications were motivating reasons for some of the adverse actions, including Lieutenant Hughes' termination.

The jury awarded past and future lost wages, as well as past and future general damages, totaling $1.67M. 

CVN webcast Hughes v. California live.

Topics: Employment Law, Civil Rights