The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a unanimous unpublished opinion affirming an award of over $172,000 in attorney fees and costs to a former employee of the Alabama Department of Transportation in a race bias case. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision because an Alabama jury found that race was a motivating factor in the employee’s termination, even though the employer could have fired him for race-neutral reasons. The case is Benjamin Mercer v. Alabama Department of Transportation, case number 20-13722, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Benjamin Mercer, a black man, worked for the Department of Transportation from 2008 to 2012, when the state fired him following an internal investigation showing that he mishandled his responsibilities to inspect concrete plants and equipment. Mercer’s alleged failings included false inspection reports, improper handling of concrete cylinders for testing, performing tests ahead of schedule, and forging associated records to lighten his schedule on Friday and work around holidays.

Brian Davis, a white man in charge of Mercer’s division, recommended that Mercer be fired. Mercer’s direct supervisor, a black woman, was not part of the decision. Mercer made allegations that Davis favored white employees, including only allowing white assistants, but never Mercer’s supervisor, to fill his role in his absence. Davis also allegedly failed to discipline a white worker who repeatedly came to work so intoxicated that he couldn’t walk. In contrast, he suspended a black worker who made mistakes, left work without permission, and falsified records. Another employee who investigated Mercer received a 30-day suspension after he took department vehicles, equipment, and staff to perform personal work at his father’s house on several occasions and instructed subordinates to lie about it.

After his termination, Mercer sued the state under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act on race discrimination and retaliation claims. The district court dismissed the retaliation claim on summary judgment. Following a trial, the jury found that race was a factor in Mercer’s termination, which justified the attorney fee and costs award. The jury declined to award Mercer any further damages, as his conduct merited termination on neutral grounds.