Repeated homophobic graffiti may end up costing Metro Nashville as much as $50,000 in the settlement of a lawsuit brought by a Metro employee. The lawsuit filed in 2012 claims that Metro fostered a hostile work environment that resulted in mental and emotional suffering. The suit was filed pursuant to the Tennessee Human Rights Act which allows successful plaintiffs to recover damages for mental and emotional suffering, as well as attorney’s fees and costs. To recover under the Act, the harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive.
Les “Bud” Buckner was hired by Metro Water Services nearly seven years ago. However, Buckner quickly found himself the target of repeated homophobic slurs in the form of graffiti.
According to the lawsuit, many of the homophobic slurs would appear in the work areas where he would often visit as a part of his job. Buckner alleges that he often found the slurs written in the Metro Water Services’ vehicle bays, restrooms, inside of work vehicles, and at a gas station. Buckner alleges that this occurred for years.
The Complaint states, Bucker complained to supervisors on a number of occasions, but there was no action taken to remedy the issue. The lawsuit claims that the supervisors never attempted to identify or discipline the perpetrators. Rather, Buckner alleges that one of his supervisors physically assaulted him at one point.
The lawsuit describes Buckner as an individual who is fit and takes care of his appearance. The Complaint reads, “He is the victim of same sex gender stereotyping, and perceived by both his co-workers and his supervisors as being homosexual.”
Attorneys for the city conducted a legal analysis on other recent court rulings dealing with claims of hostile work environments. The analysis determined that courts have given “serious weight” to similar claims. Specifically, in 2012 the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled to uphold a $3.8 million verdict against auto-manufacturer Chrysler after homophobic and racist graffiti were found in the workplace. Similarly, the Tennessee Court of Appeals chose to uphold two awards of $300,000 against the city of LaVergne after discriminatory remarks were made by employees.
The Metro Department of Law was of the opinion that Metro would likely be found liable for harassment under the Tennessee Human Rights Act because of the numerous slurs that were posted over a span of several years. Based on the recommendation by the attorneys for Metro Nashville, an amount of $50,000 was proposed for a potential settlement with Buckner. Metro Council approved the settlement amount in a vote on August 6. While Buckner still has to accept the settlement, Metro Council’s approval of the settlement amount likely will facilitate the settlement agreement.
The perpetrator or perpetrators of the graffiti are still unknown. Metro Water Services and Metro Police are still searching for the people responsible for the graffiti. Metro Water Services has pledged to provide training to help prevent any actions that can create a hostile work environment.
If you have experienced harassment of any kind at work, we encourage you to speak with a Tennessee employment lawyer. At The Higgins Firm, our team of Tennessee employment attorneys would be happy to answer any questions that you may have. We have also seen a dramatic increase in Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) cases if you have a questions on those rights.