A former cafeteria worker who sued Valley View Hospital for racial discrimination prevailed in federal district court in Denver on Thursday, winning $100,000 in damages for embarrassment, humiliation and psychological trauma.
Theresa Hernandez, a 52-year-old Latina, worked in the Valley View cafeteria for the better part of seven years before she was fired in 2007. She sued the hospital and its food service provider, Morrison Management Specialists in 2010 for employment discrimination under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that two of her supervisors in the cafeteria had berated her with a string of anti-Latino jokes and comments over more than three years.
Although a district court judge first ruled that her case lacked enough merit to stand trial, she appealed that decision and won the right to the four-day jury trial that took place in Denver this week.
“I’m just so glad its over,” said Hernandez, of her four-year legal saga. “People are afraid [to speak out against employers] in this economy, they don’t want to lose their jobs. But we have to stand up for our rights.”
In a prepared statement, Valley View communications director Stacey Gavrell said the hospital disagrees with the nine-member jury’s decision, “and we are reviewing our legal options. Valley View is committed to a work environment free from discrimination, we do not tolerate discrimination. We are and have always been committed to a respectful work environment.”
During the trial, Hernandez’s attorney, Ted Hess, of the Glenwood Springs law firm Hess and Schubert described several racist jokes that Valley View cafeteria supervisors Marc Lillis and Nick Stillahn allegedly told on several occasions while in the presence of Latino employees, including, “Do you know why Mexicans don’t barbecue? Because the beans go through the grill.”
Hess attempted to convince the jury that Hernandez’s work environment, in the words of the appeals court judges who granted her the right to a trial, “was permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter her conditions of employment.”
Hess questioned Hernandez about one incident in which Lillis allegedly made fun of a prom picture of Hernandez’s son, allegedly stating, “Only a Latino would wear tennis shoes to the prom.”
Hess also described a day in the Valley View cafeteria in June of 2007 when Lillis allegedly held up a newspaper photo of a suspected murderer with the last name Hernandez and repeatedly asked Teresa Hernandez whether it was her son or brother.
Things came to a head between Hernandez and her supervisors one day in July 2007, according to Hernandez’s affidavit, when Stillahn allegedly accused Hernandez of leaving the cafeteria a mess the previous day and Hernandez denied the claim, retorting, “Maybe I’m not white enough!”
Lillis sent Hernandez home after that comment, and later placed her on unpaid administrative leave for “insubordination,” according to her affidavit. Before she left, however, Hernandez filed a discrimination complaint with the hospital’s human resources department.
Several months later, Valley View human resources director Daniel Biggs allegedly offered to let Hernandez resume her work at the hospital, but only if she returned to the cafeteria. Hernandez refused and was fired shortly thereafter.
During the trial, Valley View attorney Michael Santo of Grand Junction tried to convince the jury that Biggs had conducted a detailed investigation of Hernandez’s discrimination complaint. But there is no record of such an investigation, and Biggs claimed during the trial that he lost his notes before he could make a report on the matter.
“This is also about an institutional failure,” wrote Hess in an email after the verdict on Thursday. “The HR director, Daniel Biggs, appointed himself to do the investigation. But, he never interviewed Teresa to get any details of the
discrimination; he never got to ground truth about the ‘newspaper incident,’ or the ‘maybe I’m not white enough incident;’ [and] he took Marc Lillis’ — the food services director’s — word as facts.”
Biggs still works at Valley View, and Gavrell, the hospital’s spokesperson, declined to comment on whether he would be disciplined or fired following the legal defeat.
In addition to the $100,000 paid to her for psychological damages, Hernandez also is seeking more than $600,000 from Valley View and Morrison Management Specialists to compensate her for the money that she would have made had she stayed employed at the hospital from 2007 until the day she retired. Hernandez also is seeking $75,000 in attorney’s fees.
U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn will decide how much of that money Hernandez should receive in the coming months. The process, according to Hess, is likely to be contentious and to feature debates between attorneys about how much money Hernandez could reasonably have made since she was fired from Valley View.
Since leaving the hospital, Hernandez said she has worked a range of service jobs at places like Target, Wal-Mart, Safeway and Burger King, and she now has her own business providing in-home care for elderly people.
Yet none of those jobs, Hess said, offer the wages or health insurance benefits of her former position at Valley View.