In Dulin v. Board of Commissioners of the Greenwood Leflore Hospital, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an $82,000 jury award to George Dulin, a white attorney who claimed his former employer, the Greenwood Leflore Hospital Board, discriminated against him based on his race.  Mr. Dulin had been the board’s attorney for 20 years when he was terminated and replaced by an African-American lawyer.  He claims that the Board, a majority of whose members are African-American, based that decision on his race.

In April 2012, a jury agreed and awarded Mr. Dulin $12,000 in back pay and $70,000 in compensatory damages.

The Board appealed claiming that the evidence presented to the jury did not support the verdict and that the amount of damages was excessive. A three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the lower court’s ruling, finding that:

  • Mr. Dulin presented credible evidence that certain members of the Board may have improperly influenced the body based on racial motives,
  • there had been no prior criticism of Mr. Dulin’s performance,
  • the method in which the new attorney was chosen could be seen as pretextual, and
  • Mr. Dulin’s lawyer’s statements in closing arguments were not improper.

“Based upon the evidence presented … Dulin presented sufficient circumstantial evidence of a racially discriminatory motive and evidence from which the jury could infer that members of the League tried to influence” the hospital board chairman’s remarks at the board meeting.

With regard to the Board’s argument that the damages award was excessive, the Fifth Circuit stated that its survey of emotional distress damages in cases like this found that the $70,000 amount was within the reasonable range. The Court cited to a specific example where they had reduced a $300,000 verdict to $150,000, implying that the range at least goes as high as that amount.

This case reminds us that board members must be careful when making statements or comments about personnel and risk management issues. Here, even though the Board members may very well have believed they were making racially neutral statements, both a jury and the Fifth Circuit determined otherwise.