Monday, July 18, 2005
Ninth Circuit Grants New Trial in Suit Over Racial Harassment
Postal Service Had Duty to Protect Manager From Slurs by Customers, Panel Says
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday ordered a new trial for a postmaster who claims the Postal Service failed to protect her from ongoing racial harassment by customers and citizens of the small community where she was employed.
The panel upheld jury findings that Arlene Galdamez’s supervisors were not motivated by racism when they placed her on leave and reprimanded her for rudeness and for undermining community relations and efficiency by insisting on strict compliance with postal regulations, leading to customer complaints.
But Senior Judge Procter Hug, writing for the court, said the magistrate judge erred in failing to instruct jurors that the Postal Service could be held liable if the supervisors failed to investigate or to act upon Galdamez’s claim that she was being harassed due to her Honduran origin and discernible accent.
Galdamez, a 10-year postal employee at the time, was named postmaster of Willamina—a small community 28 miles west of Salem and about 75 miles southwest of Portland—in 1993.
She and others testified that she sought to bring the post office in line with USPS regulations that, among other things, ban non-employees from entering areas of the post office not designated as open to the public, require timely payment of fees for post office boxes, specify the manner in which mail is to be addressed, and require that mail be delivered to boxes meeting USPS specifications.
Those efforts led to grousing, and eventually to a meeting of residents seeking Galdamez’s removal. The organizer of the group complained that because of Galdamez’s insistence on strict compliance with rules, the carrier would no longer leave mail at this rural residence, which lacked a standard mailbox; others said there mail was not being delivered due to address problems, even though the carriers knew precisely where they were.
Galdamez claimed that the problems, and the unwillingness of supervisors to back her efforts—as they had those of other small-town postmasters seeking to modernize operations—was a result of her race and national origin. She cited a number of instances that occurred over a three-year period, beginning almost as soon as she arrived in town.
Citizens, she testified, called her a “foreigner,” and warned her that her efforts to enforce regulations would enrage the people of what one critic told her was a “redneck town,” and other employees told her of threats of violence and suggested that an incident in which her car was vandalized was racially motivated.
The organizer of the “town hall” meeting told the local newspaper that Galdamez wasn’t invited because he “didn’t want her tarred and feathered on the spot [and] didn’t want this to turn into a public lynching.”
Magistrate Judge John Jelderks rejected the requested instruction on an employer’s duty to take reasonable steps to protect employees from racial harassment. The jurist reasoned that as postmaster, the plaintiff had sufficient tools at her own disposal to address the problem; that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not impose liability for failure to protect an employee from third parties unless that failure is itself racially motivated, and that there was insufficient evidence to support the requested instruction.
Hug said the trial jurist was wrong “as a matter of both law and fact.”
Right to Protection
The right to be protected from third-party harassment, Hug said, belongs to managerial and non-managerial employees alike. The statute, he noted, prohibits discrimination “against any individual.”
The Ninth Circuit, Hug said, has previously held that an employer who ratifies and condones discriminatory conduct of which it is aware may be held liable liable even if the employer was not itself biased. And the testimony of Galdamez and her fellow employees, he said, was sufficient to entitle her to a jury instruction on her theory that the Postal Service had condoned the hostile environment created by her critics among the citizenry.
“Properly instructed as to these requirements, a reasonable jury could have found that Galdamez experienced a hostile work environment based on her national origin,” the judge said.
Judges Marsha Berzon and Jay Bybee joined in the opinion.
The case is Galdamez v. Potter, 03-35682.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company