Earlier this week, a federal jury in California decided that Tesla had subjected a former worker to a racially hostile work environment and awarded him $137 million in damages. The jury awarded the plaintiff, Owen Diaz, $6.9 million in compensatory damages for emotional distress, plus another $130 million in punitive damages. Diaz’ complaint centered on events that occurred in 2015 and 2016, when he worked as contractor for Tesla. During this time, Diaz’s co-workers told him to “go back to Africa” and left racially derogatory pictures and drawings – such as swastikas – around the factory. Additionally, Diaz and other workers were called the n-word by other Tesla employees. Diaz reportedly made complaints about the hostile work environment, but nothing was done to stop the harassment.
This case highlights the importance of following up on complaints about harassment and discrimination in the workplace. According to a spokesperson from Tesla, an investigation was conducted after Diaz complained. However, it is clear that not enough was done to correct the situation, given that he continued to experience harassment. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a hostile work environment exists when an employee is subjected to unwanted behavior due to their membership to a protected class (race, sex, etc.) that is either severe or pervasive. While there is no clear definition as to what constitutes “severe or pervasive” harassment, this is meant to be a high bar, and it is not meant to include one-off jokes or general incivility. While certain acts of harassment – such as the harassment faced by Owen Diaz – fall well over the line of “severe and pervasive,” it is not always so clear with other, less egregious forms of harassment. In certain jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County, Maryland, the standard for actionable harassment is lower, and an employee merely needs to show that “a reasonable person would consider the conduct to be more than a petty slight, trivial inconvenience, or minor annoyance.” In the event that an employee comes to you with complaints of harassment, you should consult with an employment attorney in order mitigate your liability under federal, state, and local anti-harassment laws.