SAFETY HARBOR — A black employee in the city's Public Works Department has won a $60,000 judgment against the city.
A federal court jury in Tampa agreed that water and sewer maintenance worker Geno Baker, who said he's been racially harassed on the job for nearly 14 years, was subjected to a hostile work environment.
"When I heard the verdict, I said I have to go call my wife,'' he said. "I give thanks to my wife, Tammy, for standing behind me, Angela and her team and the jury.''
Angela Outten, a partner in the law firm of Reeser, Rodnite, Outten and Zdravko, is Baker's lawyer.
Baker hired her in 2006 after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Baker and another worker, Willie Brooks, had been racially harassed. Baker chose to pursue the matter in court. Brooks did not.
Outten said a stuffed toy monkey was placed strategically on city property where Baker and other black employees would find it. White workers also made primate noises and gestures in front of other African-American employees, she said.
Instead of investigating, the city sent the whole department to diversity training, but there was little improvement, she said.
Mica Huffman, Baker's supervisor, also was involved in the harassment, she said.
"He was assigned jobs that he felt were slave work,'' Outten said. "He said he was told to do water meters, to dig them out, and the shovel Mica gave him had bent tips and asphalt all over them. Baker twice asked Mica for a better shovel and he said no. They tried to make it unnecessarily hard and cruel for no reason. He even denied Baker Gatorade.''
Outten said five current employees of the city testified about racial hostility at the city, whites not working with blacks and slurs.
"They deserve a medal,'' she said.
The jury's decision came on Sept. 25. The city has 30 days to appeal but it's unclear if it will.
"The city will rely upon whatever steps our council deems appropriate with regard to post-judgment motions and appeals,'' said Mayor Andy Steingold. "As a trial attorney, I have great respect for our jury trial system and although I'm disappointed in the unfavorable verdict, the jury has spoken.''
He said the City Commission will ultimately make the call.
Outten said perhaps the residents of Safety Harbor should have a say in whether to challenge the court's finding.
"I'm sure it will cost them $20,000, $30,000 for an appeal,'' she said. "It will cost them more to defend the indefensible.''
Eileen Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.