Our postracial society

Turley v. ISG Lackawanna, Inc., No. 13-561 (2d Cir. Dec. 17, 2014).

Elijah Turley is black. He worked at a Lackawanna steel plant where he was subjected to constant racial slurs, racist graffiti, vandalism, and threats of violence. One day he found a stuffed toy monkey dangling by a noose from his car’s side-view mirror. Management, for the most part, was unresponsive to Turley’s complaints. Meanwhile, Turley lost thirty pounds and was diagnosed with PTSD. By the time he left the steel plant, he was a broken man. 

Turley sued the steel plant for racial discrimination, and after a three-week trial, a federal jury awarded Turley $1.3 million in compensatory damages and $24 million in punitive damages. The district court found the punitive damages to be excessive and reduced them to $5 million. 

On appeal, the defendants’ main contentions are that the jury was improperly instructed on the law, that the steel plant’s corporate parent can’t be liable, and that the jury awarded excessive damages. The Second Circuit says that jury was properly instructed, that the corporate parent is liable, and that $1.3 million in compensatory damages is not excessive. But the court also concludes that even the reduced award of $5 million in punitive damages is excessive compared to other awards from juries in the Second Circuit, particularly since that figure tests the constitutional limits set by the Supreme Court for such awards. The Second Circuit says that the punitive damages should be halved, and it remands for the district court to impose a further remittitur, under which Turley must either accept reduced punitive damages or undergo a new trial.

ArcelorMittal USA, the steel plant’s parent company, is the world’s largest steel producer, with a market capitalization of $26.81 billion.