Racial slurs, retaliation result in $1 million jury award - The Packer

Racial slurs, retaliation result in $1 million jury award

06/07/2012 10:30:00 AM
Coral Beach

A federal jury awarded two former employees of Federal Fruit & Produce Co. Inc. a total of more than $1.2 million in a civil rights case.

Richard Perkins, a black truck driver, and his white co-worker, Richard Miller, filed the suit in March 2011 in U.S. District Court in Denver. Perkins alleged that Federal Fruit, Denver, and its general manager were guilty of disparate treatment, unlawful discharge and retaliation because of race. Miller alleged Federal and its general manager were guilty of unlawful retaliation against him.

Federal Fruit is a wholesale distributor, handling a full line of produce. It was founded in 1935, according to its website, and bought in 1987 by John Domenico, Stan Kouba and the senior Mike Martelli. Domenico retired in 2011.

A jury of five whites and one Hispanic returned unanimous guilty verdicts on all counts May 25 against the company and general manager Martelli.

Ted Kouba, Federal Fruit’s comptroller, said June 6 that he could not comment on the case because the company views it as ongoing litigation. He confirmed that Martelli remains on staff as general manager.

According to court documents, Martelli used racial slurs and profanity when talking to Perkins in 2009. Several employees witnessed the incident, but Martinelli denied using the language. Miller was one of the co-workers who saw the incident and openly voiced support for minority co-workers. Eventually both Perkins and Miller were fired.

The jury awarded Perkins $962,894 and Miller $300,000. The breakdown on Miller’s award is: $50,000 for mental and emotional pain from both Martelli individually and Federal as a company; and $200,000 in punitive damages from Martelli.

The breakdown on Perkins award from Federal is: $29,697 in lost wages; $65,000 for pain and anguish; and $480,000 in punitive damages. The jury ordered Martelli to pay Perkins $33,197 in lost wages, $75,000 for pain and anguish and $280,000 in punitive damages.

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florida  |  June, 08, 2012 at 08:04 AM

What ever happened to "but names will never hurt me?" If the employers were using sticks and stones, physically assaulting these employees, then they deserve a payday. However, simple name-calling does NOT warrant these outrageous payouts. "Pain and Anguish?" BULL

Visalia  |  June, 08, 2012 at 12:14 PM

It reads like a lot more than name calling. Not only were they subject to listening to some ignorant bigot, they were fired for calling the bigot out. There is no place in any business for ignorant prejudice people.

Jim Iovin    
6984 E. Montana Pl  |  June, 08, 2012 at 11:52 AM

Working in the produce business i can tell you it is a fast paced, stressful business. Your day starts early and you are bascially on call all evening. I've worked with Federal Fruit for many years and have nothing but the greatest admiration for how hard Mike works and how much responsibilty he carries on his shoulders running a business. Having spent most of his adult life working in this business he has turned Federal Fruit into a very successful and well respected company. Using any kind of a racial slur is always inappropiate. I'm sure he regrets he ever said it. In any business you will encounter irresponsible people. I'm sure Mike expects his employees to work hard and be honest. Apparently these two guys didn't measure up and I'm sure deserved to be fired. No sympathy for anyone trying to get a handout.

maryland  |  June, 08, 2012 at 12:05 PM

They weren't awarded a judgment for "sticks and stones". They were apparently able to prove improper termination. If they didn't "measure up" and "deserved to be fired", then Mr. Martinelli should have attempted to be respectful and professional as opposed to denigrating and abusive.

Houston  |  June, 08, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Political correctness gone amuck! Proves you can sue anyone for anything and walk away a rich man!

Andrea Chavez    
Arroyo Grande, California  |  June, 08, 2012 at 02:08 PM

I've worked with Mike on and off in the produce business for over 25 years. He's a hard working produce man and always very reliable in our dealings. I'm sure he regrets the whole situation. This stressful business can contribute to us saying the wrong things out of turn. Perhaps they were fired wrongly and back pay may be correctly awarded. But, "pain and anguish and punitive damages" jury awards like this is a very good example of what's wrong with our legal system, and exactly why our insurance rates for everything from health care to vehicle insurance are so high.

Coral Beach    
Lenexa, KS  |  June, 08, 2012 at 01:10 PM

In light of the comments on this story, I would like to provide additional details from the court documents. These details were not part of our original story because of space limitations in our print edition. Testimony in the case of truckers Richard Perkins and Richard Miller at Federal Fruit & Produce Co. Inc. indicated the use of racial slurs and profanity were frequent and went on for months. More than one manager at the company is reported to have used words such as “spic” and “nigger” on a daily basis when interacting with certain employees. Also, both drivers filed union grievances, but the company did not respond. After filing the grievances the drivers were “written up” for things that were out of their control, such as when trucks were loaded with the wrong produce by other employees. The drivers’ days off were then changed without notice. Perkins was ordered to begin working Sundays, despite a specific agreement upon his hiring that he would have Sundays off to attend church. Miller’s days off were Mondays and Tuesday, but after he filed the grievance his days off were changed to Tuesdays and Thursdays. Both drivers were given overweight loads to deliver. When they complained that the loads would jeopardize their commercial driver’s licenses they were put on dock and warehouse duty. Perkins was eventually fired when Federal managers said he delivered a load late to a retailer. The store manager reported that the load was on time and he had no problems with it. Miller was fired after one manager stopped talking to him, making it virtually impossible for Miller to do his job, and another manager made a practice of shouting slurs and profanity at him out of a window and through open doorways while he was working on the dock. Additional incidents of discrimination and retaliation were detailed during the trial. Coral Beach Staff Writer

Arroyo Grande, California  |  June, 08, 2012 at 02:11 PM

I'm sorry to hear that such things went on at Federal Fruit.

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