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Bryant v. Jeffrey Sand Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 18, 2019

Adrian Bryant Plaintiff - Appellee
Jeffrey Sand Company Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: January 16, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before BENTON, MELLOY, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.


         After trial, a jury awarded Adrian Bryant nominal compensatory damages and $250, 000 in punitive damages for his claim of hostile work environment against his former employer, Jeffrey Sand Company. The district court[1] denied Jeffrey Sand's post-trial motions and granted Bryant's motion for attorney's fees. Jeffrey Sand appeals, and we affirm.


         We recite the facts ascertained at trial, viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict. Morse v. S. Union Co., 174 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 1999). Bryant worked from 2009 to 2013 for Jeffrey Sand as a deckhand on the Cora, a barge that dredges sand from the Arkansas River. During this period, Bryant's co-workers on the Cora were the foreman, Jerry Skaggs; the pumper, Donald Lambert; and another deckhand, Chad Bateman. Bryant was the only black employee on the barge.

         The evidence at trial revealed that Skaggs, Bryant's direct supervisor, engaged in a pattern of racially-motivated abuse. Skaggs taunted Bryant with racial slurs, calling him "nigger," "Kunte Kinte," "spear chucker," "monkey," "bitch," "porch monkey," and "boy," among other names. On at least some occasions, he uttered these epithets in the presence of other employees. Skaggs would give Bryant difficult tasks that he would not assign to the Cora's white employees. Lambert testified that "a number of times," Skaggs would "get up in [Bryant's] face and use his chest to push [Bryant] around trying to get [Bryant] to fight him."

         Bryant complained to his plant manager, Ken Bolton, twice and to the then-president of the company, Joe Wickliffe, four times regarding Skaggs's behavior. He testified that he received no response to his complaints. Bolton testified that, in response to a complaint from Bryant on May 4, 2012, he sent another employee, Randy Marshall, to the Cora for a few days in an attempt to corroborate Bryant's allegation that Skaggs was using racial slurs. After Marshall reported back that he had not heard any slurs, Bolton did no further investigation. Bolton did not attempt to interview Bryant or any other employees. Jeffrey Sand has no written anti-harassment or anti-discrimination policy and no human resources personnel.

         Bryant testified that the harassment persisted and that he continued to make complaints after May 2012. He testified about a particular incident on August 7, 2012, when Skaggs made him paint rails in the hot sun and would not allow him to come into the air-conditioned part of the barge or to access water. When Bryant attempted to get out of the sun and told Skaggs that he felt ill, Skaggs responded, "[G]o out there and paint those rails like I told your black ass to," and sent him back outside. Bryant felt lightheaded and experienced chest pains, so he went to Lambert for help. Lambert measured Bryant's blood pressure, which was very high, and convinced Skaggs to call an ambulance. It was later determined that Bryant had suffered a heart attack, and he did not return to work for two weeks.

         On January 30, 2013, Clay McGeorge, then the sales director (and now the president) of Jeffrey Sand, received an anonymous email stating: "Hi Clay I want to remain anonymous but I would like to inform you about the racist comments I've overheard the foreman on dredge Cora make." McGeorge alerted Wickliffe and Bolton to the email and Bolton interviewed several employees. Lambert corroborated that Skaggs had made racist comments toward Bryant, but Bolton discounted Lambert as merely a disgruntled employee. Several other employees told Bolton that they had heard second-hand about Skaggs using racial slurs. Bateman, the other deckhand, later admitted that he had authored the anonymous email. He testified that he had not heard Skaggs make racist comments personally, but had heard Bryant complaining about it and believed Bryant's accusations. Bolton did not interview Bryant as part of his investigation. The company took no disciplinary action against Skaggs.

         Jeffrey Sand fired Bryant shortly after the investigation into the email, purportedly for absenteeism. Bryant brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 on July 13, 2016, alleging a racially hostile work environment and retaliatory termination. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Jeffrey Sand on the retaliation claim but allowed the hostile-work-environment claim to proceed to trial. The jury found in Bryant's favor and awarded him $1.00 in compensatory damages and $250, 000 in punitive damages. The district court denied Jeffrey Sand's post-trial motions for judgment as a matter of law and to amend the award of punitive damages. It also granted Bryant's motion for $64, 432.50 in attorney's fees and $1, 028.15 in costs. Jeffrey Sand appeals.


         Jeffrey Sand argues it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there was insufficient evidence to charge punitive damages to the jury and because Bryant's claim is time-barred. We review the district court's denial of Jeffrey Sand's motion de novo, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Bryant and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor. Weitz Co. v. MacKenzie House, LLC, 665 F.3d 970, 974 (8th Cir. 2012). Judgment as a matter of law is proper if "a party has been fully heard on an issue and there ...

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