A federal appeals court has upheld an $82,000 award to a white attorney who claimed he was the victim of discrimination by a black-majority hospital board that replaced him as the board attorney with a black attorney.
In August 2005, the black chairman and a black member of the Greenwood Leflore Hospital board in Greenwood, Mississippi, attended a meeting of the Greenwood Voters' League, a local political organization, whose members urged them to fire board attorney George Dulin and replace him with a black attorney, according to Wednesday's ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in George Dulin v. Board of Commissioners of the Greenwood Leflore Hospital.
In August 2006, the board, which consisted of three black and two white members, voted to terminate the contract of Mr. Dulin, who had served as board attorney for 24 years.
Mr. Dulin sued the hospital board in U.S. District Court in Aberdeen, Mississippi, claiming he was falsely accused of sleeping at board meetings by one of the members of the voters' league, who was also president of the Leflore County Board of Supervisors, and that the hospital board had engaged in race discrimination.
A complex litigation process ensued. At the close of a 2010 trial on the issue, the District Court upheld the board's motion dismissing the case.
When the case was retried in April 2012, the jury awarded Mr. Dulin $12,000 in back pay and $70,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress. The hospital board appealed the District Court's final judgment in Mr. Dulin's favor.
Sufficient circumstantial evidence of bias
In the latest ruling, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit unanimously affirmed the lower court's ruling.
“Based upon the evidence presented ... Dulin presented sufficient circumstantial evidence of a racially discriminatory motive and evidence from which the jury could infer that members of the League tried to influence” the hospital board chairman's remarks at the board meeting, said the opinion.
Among other reasons cited by the panel was “the absence of any earlier criticism of Dulin's work as board attorney. The manner in which the Board selected Dulin's replacement would suggest to a reasonable juror that the board's claimed reason for terminating Dulin was pretext,” said the ruling.
The appellate board also refused to vacate the $70,000 emotional distress award. ”Dulin presented enough evidence to sustain the jury's award of damages for his emotional distress,” said the ruling.
“Dulin testified that he had held the position as board attorney for over 24 years and considered his relationship with employees of the hospital to be 'like family,' ” the ruling said.
“He testified that the Board was an important part of his law practice and that being replaced because of his race was 'humiliating,' a 'shock,' and a stressful situation,” said the panel, in affirming the lower court's ruling.