A Howard County Circuit Court jury ruled Wednesday evening that a former Black public works employee endured racial harassment while working with the bureau that administers and maintains the county’s public water and wastewater systems.
Darrell Fletcher, 54, was awarded $961,556.40 in compensatory damages at the end of an eight-day trial for his racial harassment claim. He and his attorneys argued that his white co-workers said he was inadequate for his role, uttered racial slurs and refused to be trained by him when he was promoted.
He joined the Bureau of Utilities in October 2018 as a Level II Utility Worker before he was promoted to a Utility III two months later, the lawsuit said. His white counterparts said he received the job because he was related to a supervisor at the time, who is also Black. The two were not related.
During closing arguments, the defense argued that Fletcher’s lawyers failed to prove that the harassment claim was severe or pervasive, and that it “had nothing to do with his race,” said Tsega Girma, the senior assistant county solicitor at the Howard County Office of Law.
“By his own very statements, Mr. Fletcher’s harassment was not motivated by his race, but because of the position he was hired for, and because he was promoted within two months of coming to the county,” Girma said.
“Do I excuse the conduct of these employees who had some animus towards him because he came in as a Utility Worker II? Absolutely not. Is that appropriate? Absolutely not. But these employees felt slighted,” Girma added.
In an interview prior to the trial, Fletcher said his co-workers were upset because a lot of them applied for the position and had been there for years.
“I overheard one of my white co-workers say, ‘I’m not going to train [with] that n***er, and I’m not going to work with that n***er,” Fletcher said about the time that he had been promoted.
According to the lawsuit, in 2017, an outside investigator contracted by the Howard County Department of County Administration concluded that racial discrimination had been part of the culture of the bureau for “numerous years” in a report.
The report also described a “clique” of employees within the bureau that consisted of white males, with the exception of one Black man. They identified as the “Carroll County Boys” and exercised “fear and power over other employees who believe they cannot do anything about the group.”
The report was not used as evidence in the trial. But on Wednesday, Girma acknowledged that the Carroll County Boys existed prior to Fletcher’s employment and “resentment” from employees about external hires being promoted or starting at higher positions was not unique to him.
Fletcher’s lawyer, David Karman, associate attorney at Gilbert Employment Law, said today’s verdict was just.
“Mr. Fletcher showed incredible fortitude in the face of disgusting mistreatment. While nothing can fully repair the emotional and economic damage that this abuse caused him, today’s verdict delivers an important measure of justice,” Karman said. “We are proud to have helped make things right for him and his family.”
Fletcher said it’s been an “extremely difficult” for him to get back on his feet. He was also put on unpaid medical leave for mental health reasons related to the harassment on the job and was eventually fired in August 2019, he said.
Since leaving the bureau, Fletcher has since obtained his commercial drivers license to become a truck driver.
“I spent so long dealing with the fallout the harassment had on me and my family, but I’m very relieved that we’re finally here today,” Fletcher said. “My honest hope is that this case creates long-overdue change at the DPW to address these issues — no one should have to endure what I faced in their place of work.”