published Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Jury awards $280,000 in New York case over N-word abuse

Brandi Johnson, left, and her lawyer, Marjorie M. Sharpe, leave federal court in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, after a civil jury awarded $30,000 in punitive damages in addition to the $250,000 in compensatory damages that had been awarded last week.
Brandi Johnson, left, and her lawyer, Marjorie M. Sharpe, leave federal court in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, after a civil jury awarded $30,000 in punitive damages in addition to the $250,000 in compensatory damages that had been awarded last week.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NEW YORK — The lawyer for a black woman whose hostile workplace claim against a black boss’s N-word rant produced a $280,000 jury award says she hopes the case teaches society something.

“It’s the most offensive word in the English language,” attorney Marjorie M. Sharpe said outside federal court in Manhattan after a jury Tuesday added $30,000 in punitive damages to go with a $250,000 compensatory damages award it imposed last week against STRIVE East Harlem and founder Rob Carmona.

Sharpe stood with her client, 38-year-old Brandi Johnson, after a jury of six men and two women determined Carmona owes her $25,000 and STRIVE $5,000 in additional damages in a case that put a legal microscope to the concept that the word that is a degrading slur when spoken by whites can be used without retribution and sometimes affectionately among blacks, even in the workplace.

Sharpe said the double standard had persisted far too long as “people have tried to take the sting away from the N-word.”

Johnson said she hopes the word now “won’t be tolerated no matter what your race is.”

Carmona, a 61-year-old black man of Puerto Rican descent, had testified at the trial that he was dispensing tough love in language he faced from counselors who turned him from a drug addict with an arrest record into the creator of an often-praised organization that has helped nearly 50,000 hard-to-employ people find work since 1984.

Johnson had recorded the March 2012 tirade about inappropriate workplace attire and unprofessional behavior that was aired for the jury and described by both sides as the trial’s centerpiece. She said she cried for 45 minutes in the restroom afterward.

“I was offended. I was hurt. I felt degraded. I felt disrespected. I was embarrassed,” Johnson testified.

Outside court after her victory, Johnson said she was “very happy” and rejected Carmona’s claims from the witness stand Tuesday that the verdict made him realize he needs to “take stock” of how he communicates with people he is trying to help.

“I come from a different time,” Carmona said hesitantly, wiping his eyes repeatedly with a cloth. Sharpe told jurors they were “ghost tears.”

“So now, now you’re sorry?” Johnson said outside court, adding she doubted his sincerity and noting Carmona had refused to apologize to her in court last week. She said he should have been sorry “the day when he told me the N-word eight times.”

Carmona left the courthouse without immediately commenting, as did all eight jurors. When he testified last week, he tried to defend his use of the word, saying it had “multiple contexts” in the black and Latino communities, sometimes indicating anger, sometimes love.

In a statement, STRIVE said it was disappointed but was exploring options, including an appeal and looking forward to the “judicial process taking its entire course.” A STRIVE executive testified Tuesday that the organization already has changed because of the verdict with plans to provide its staff additional diversity, discrimination and anti-harassment training.

It also cited Johnson as a “prime example of the second chances that STRIVE provides to both its participants and nonparticipants alike.”

It noted that Johnson, who was never a STRIVE participant, was employed there despite a previous conviction for grand larceny that required her to pay about $100,000 in restitution. The judge barred lawyers from telling jurors about the conviction.

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