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A hostile work environment claim made by a school board worker who was allegedly subjected by his supervisor to daily offensive comments and jokes about Puerto Ricans was reinstated by a federal appeals court.
Jamie Ortiz, who worked at various jobs for the Broward County School Board in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from 2009 until late 2017, said his supervisor made comments such as, “I’m around too many Puerto Ricans, I better carry my gun with me,” according to Thursday’s ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in Jamie Ortiz v. School Board of Broward County, Florida. His testimony was largely confirmed by several of his co-workers, according to the ruling.
Mr. Ortiz filed suit in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale against the school board on charges including a hostile work environment. The court granted the school board summary judgment dismissing the case, concluding the supervisor’s remarks were not frequent, severe or threatening.
The ruling on the hostile work environment claim was overturned by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel. A “reasonable jury could conclude that Ortiz’s workplace was objectively hostile to a reasonable person in his position” and that the harassment was severe, said the ruling.
It said the supervisor never called Mr. Ortiz by his name and “instead referred to him simply as ‘Puerto Rican,’ suggesting that Ortiz was not worthy of individual dignity or respect and was no different than the stereotype of Puerto Ricans reflected in (the supervisor’s) comments.
“A reasonable person in Ortiz’s position could view these comments and his conduct as demeaning and humiliating,” said the ruling, in reinstating the hostile work environment claim and remanding the case for further proceedings.
Mr. Ortiz’s Fort Lauderdale-based attorney, attorney, Mark J. Berkowitz, said, “We’re very pleased, obviously, that the 11th Circuit reversed the District Court ruling on the existence of a hostile work environment. We always felt that the evidence was clear that the work environment was permeated with an egregious form of discrimination on a daily basis and met the severe and pervasive standard.”
The school board’s attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.
A federal court has affirmed a jury’s hostile work environment verdicts against a nursing home in a case where a worker’s co-workers posted an Instagram photo comparing her to a chimpanzee from “Planet of the Apes,” but cut its punitive damages award to $50,00 from $250,000.