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This Bad Boss Said the Only Black Employee in Her Office Stank — Literally

Imagine if your boss put on a gas mask when you were around. You might take it personally.

It happened to Valerie Davis, a paralegal working for a state agency in St. Petersburg, Fla. One of her supervising attorneys, Suzanne Hurley, began wearing a conspicuous pink respirator at work because, she claimed, Ms. Davis wore perfume or another “noxious” substance that caused her to gag.

“I could smell her coming down the hallway,” Ms. Hurley said in a deposition.

But Ms. Davis, the only African American in the office, says she never wore perfume: Just unscented lotion. She had recently filed a discrimination grievance, however — and that seemed to trigger Ms. Hurley’s allergies.

Suzanne Hurley is our latest “Bad Boss of the Month.”

On May 18, 2015, a three-judge federal appeals panel upheld a $240,000 jury award to Ms. Davis for the anguish she suffered from Ms. Hurley’s retaliation. In addition to wearing the mask, Ms. Hurley had accused the well-liked employee of being lazy, inept, and unable to write or spell. Each allegation conformed to “common racial stereotypes,” noted Ms. Davis’ lawyers.

The state agency denied any racism or retaliation, but conceded that “it is undisputed” that Ms. Hurley was “difficult.” Indeed, the trial judge called this the agency’s “only real defense” — the idea that Ms. Hurley treated everyone badly.

It all started when Ms. Davis asked for a promotion.

Before Ms. Hurley arrived at the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration (ACHA), Ms. Davis was known as a diligent, quick-to-smile paralegal specialist. A senior co-worker had retired months before, leaving an open slot; as a result, Ms. Davis was serving as the only support staff for four lawyers in the office.

Ms. Davis applied for the empty job, but the promotion went instead to a white woman, Cathy Keith, who was from a different department and had no recent legal experience. Ms. Hurley was among those who reviewed the job candidates.

Ms. Davis filed a discrimination grievance with the AHCA Human Resources department. And around that time, she also got a new co-supervisor — Ms. Hurley.

At first, the women got along OK. They would walk around the lake outside the office and talk; Ms. Hurley even baked Ms. Davis a birthday cake. But after the state began investigating the grievance, asking questions of Ms. Hurley, Ms. Davis felt relations chill. The attorney became critical and curt, claiming to observe “deficiencies” in Ms. Davis’ work performance, including “numerous grammar and spelling mistakes.”

Ms. Davis previously had reported only to senior attorney Jim Harris, who regularly gave her high marks on her evaluations. Now Ms. Hurley gave her a far harsher rating: 1.37, a score that usually would be a prelude to firing.

Stung, Ms. Davis sent a rebuttal in which she said that “discrimination and retaliation are rampant at this office.” Ms. Hurley snarked that Ms. Davis must have gotten someone else to write it: “Unlike Ms. Davis, the person who wrote her rebuttal can spell, punctuate, and write using correct English.”

And then there was the mask, which Ms. Hurley wore only for Ms. Davis.

Ms. Davis didn’t wear scent at the office, but others did: Ms. Keith wore strong perfume, the trial court heard, and one of the male attorneys wore cologne and aftershave. Ms. Hurley never wore her pink mask around either of those people, however, even though both also were smokers — another declared sensitivity.

Ms. Davis felt shamed: It was “embarrassing to walk into an attorney’s office that you’re trying to work hard for and see her with this pink thing on,” she said. “It was hurtful and it brought my self-esteem down.”

She became “isolated” in the office and stopped going out to dinner with friends. Some days she didn’t want to eat at all, and her weight fluctuated. “All I want to do [since then] is sleep,” she testified.

Ms. Hurley had drawn a complaint from a Black assistant at a previous job, too, yet she insisted that neither race nor retaliation was a factor here. AHCA agreed, but otherwise declined to salvage her reputation. During closing arguments, the AHCA lawyer acknowledged that Ms. Hurley “doesn’t get along, frankly, with a lot of people … because she is what she is” — which may be, he later indicated, a “crazy person.”

In its verdict, the jury found that race wasn’t a factor when Ms. Davis was passed over for the promotion. But it unanimously found that her grievance had resulted in “materially adverse treatment,” and that she was entitled to nearly a quarter-million dollars in damages.

The trial judge said the evidence supporting such a verdict was “strong” — and the appeals court later affirmed that justice was done.

» Ms. Davis’ Second Amended Complaint
» Trial Judge’s Order Directing the Entry of Judgment
» Decision on Appeal (11th Circuit)

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Davis v. Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

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