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Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Jury Verdict Finding That City of Boston Discriminated and Retaliated Against a Longtime Black Employee Who Was Called “Uppity” by Former First Assistant Collector-Treasurer

Today the Massachusetts Appeals Court vindicated Chantal Charles, a black woman and longtime public servant, who had won a nearly $11 million verdict in 2015 in her race discrimination and retaliation case against the City of Boston and the City’s First Assistant Collector-Treasurer Vivian Leo. The Appeals Court issued a unanimous 45-page decision affirming the jury’s verdict that the City and Ms. Leo discriminated and retaliated against Ms. Charles and granted Ms. Charles’ appeal of the trial court’s decision to reduce the punitive damages verdict.

Ms. Charles is an outstanding employee who has worked in the City’s Treasury Department for thirty-three years, managing the Edward Ingersoll Browne Trust and other trusts, and has dedicated her career to beautifying and improving the city’s parks and neighborhoods. Despite her excellent performance, Ms. Charles has never been promoted. The Treasury Division generally has failed to promote black employees to higher level management positions and is one of the least racially diverse departments in the City with one of the highest pay gaps between white and non-white employees. Ms. Charles’ longtime supervisor left his position after Ms. Leo called Ms. Charles “aloof, non-deferential, and uppity” and insisted that he give her a poor performance review, which he refused to do because it was unwarranted. Following his departure, Ms. Charles continued to experience discrimination and was passed over for promotion to his position twice.

After hearing the evidence at trial, the jury found that the City and Ms. Leo engaged in a “consistently enforced pattern and practice of discrimination” against black employees. The jury also found that the City and Ms. Leo retaliated against Ms. Charles for filing a charge of discrimination at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

The jury awarded Ms. Charles $388,159.83 in economic damages, $500,000.00 for emotional distress, and $10,000,000.00 in punitive damages. The scope of the punitive damages award shows that the jury found the City and Ms. Leo’s conduct was outrageous and egregious. At a post-trial hearing, the trial judge reduced the jury’s punitive damages award from $10,000,000.00 to $2,000,000.00, but otherwise upheld the jury verdict in its entirety.

In the Appeals Court decision issued today, the Court sent a clear message that the City and Ms. Leo’s treatment of Ms. Charles was discriminatory and retaliatory. Although the City’s counsel denied during oral argument that the word “uppity” is racially-charged, the Appeals Court took pains to note that “ ‘uppity’ is a derogatory term applied by definition only to those whom the speaker considers inferior and it has a long, sorry history of use in the United States to describe African Americans who the speaker believes . . . [should] keep . . .  to their proper subjugated place.”

With respect to punitive damages, the Appeals Court emphasized that unlawful conduct by a public entity such as the City presents a “heightened degree of reprehensibility” and concluded that the trial court should not have cut the award from $10 million to $2 million without adequately explaining the basis for its decision, when neither the trial court nor the City had given reasons to support such a reduction. As such, the Appeals Court sent this portion of the case back to the trial court to reconsider the reduction in the punitive damages award.

After trial, Ms. Leo faced no discipline or other repercussions for her unlawful discriminatory and retaliatory practices, and continued working at the City for more than a year before her retirement. Nor has Mayor Walsh’s administration taken any steps to remedy the discriminatory environment in the Treasury Division, which persists to date.

Instead, over the past four years, the City and the Walsh Administration have challenged this case in the courts, while Ms. Charles has continued to serve the City in the same job she has held without promotion since 1986. In 2016, after Ms. Charles’ then-supervisor left the City, the Treasury Division left the supervisory position open for more than two years, rather than posting a job opening to which Ms. Charles could apply. When the position was finally posted in 2019, Ms. Charles applied and was once again denied promotion in favor of an external white candidate despite the City’s public statements claiming that it encourages the promotions of qualified internal candidates.

Other black employees in Treasury have also faced discrimination and retaliation and the City and the Walsh administration have continued to fight these cases – as well as Ms. Charles’ case – for the past four years, rather than remedying the long-standing discrimination in the Treasury Division. Over the past year, the City has lost two other Appeals Court decisions involving race discrimination in the Treasury Division, and as a result, will face trial in two more cases in May and June 2020.

Ms. Charles is represented by Emma Quinn-Judge and Monica Shah, both of the law firm Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP.

Charles v. Leo & COB Appeals Court Decision

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