In June 2012, attorney William Trantham was riding high. He'd just scored a half-million-dollar jury award on behalf of his client, a black Denton County prosecutor named Nadiya Williams-Boldware who was outraged by racist remarks from colleagues and superiors. Two days after the verdict, District Attorney Paul Johnson fired four of his deputies who were implicated in the harassment.
Trantham's good feelings wouldn't last. In a post-trial judgment, the district judge cut the award by two-thirds, to $170,000, finding that Denton County wasn't responsible for current or future pain and suffering, just "past mental anguish."
On Friday, that figure was cut to $0 by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The justices don't dispute the basic facts of the case. On April 2, 2009, assistant district attorney Cary Piel, a self-described redneck, walked into Williams-Boldware's office to discuss a case involving an African-American woman who had driven through and "desecrated" a historic cemetery.
The case, Piel told Williams-Boldware, "made him understand why people hung people from trees" and made him "want to go home and put on his pointy white hat."
Two months later, after Piel had been reprimanded and required to take diversity training, and after Williams-Boldware was transferred to another department so she wouldn't have to work under Piel's wife, she overheard Piel say he needed a boombox for an upcoming trial. She took his comments as a veiled dig at black culture, particularly when he said "I better watch what I say or else I'll have to take another one of those classes."
Four weeks later, an assistant district attorney called Williams-Boldware "troublemaker" as he walked past her office.
Where the appeals court and the jury differ is on whether any of this proves Williams-Boldware experienced a hostile work environment for which Denton County should be held liable.
"These incidents did not involve a protracted outpouring of racially invidious harassment that required large-scale institutional reform," they write. "Instead, Denton County was required to implement prompt remedial measures to prevent Cary, and anyone else, from engaging in racially harassing conduct toward Williams-Boldware."
Indeed, the justices go on to applaud Denton County's response, saying it "could not have been more prompt."
Less than twenty-four hours after the complaint, Williams-Boldware was in a meeting with the DA and the First Assistant DA. During this meeting, she was afforded the opportunity to fully explain what she experienced. The DA's Office's leadership asked for her input on an appropriate response. She requested a meeting with Cary and her request was granted. Shortly thereafter, Denton County officials verbally reprimanded Cary and required that he attend a diversity training. They also ensured that Williams-Boldware would not be supervised by Cary's wife, Susan.
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Trantham acknowledges those facts but disagrees with 5th Circuit's conclusion.
"I think it was quick but not effective," he says. "The sniping continued to several months."
And so will Williams-Boldware's court case. Trantham says he plans to file for an en banc hearing before the entire 5th Circuit. If that fails, maybe the Supreme Court.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.