Jurors Backed a Stutterer — and Made This Bad Boss Choke on His Words
For Augustine Caldera, a longtime corrections officer, speaking in front of Sgt. James Grove — his superior at a California prison — often led to humiliation, according to a state appeals court.
Mr. Caldera has stuttered since he was 12. When he did so at the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif., Mr. Grove would ape his disability in a schoolyard display aimed at their co-workers — on one occasion even jumping onto the prison’s radio system to mimic an announcement in which Mr. Caldera had stammered, the court said in an opinion.
In another incident, after Mr. Grove had mocked him in front of two dozen fellow officers, Mr. Caldera asked the sergeant to stop.
“F- f- f- f**k you,” replied Mr. Grove, according to the opinion.
When Mr. Caldera warned that he’d lodge a complaint, the court said, Mr. Grove replied: “I don’t give a fu- fu- f**k — fi- fi- file on me. Make sure you get my name right.”
Mr. Caldera did request an investigation, according to testimony, but within days he learned that his situation would get even worse. Mr. Grove wouldn’t face significant discipline; instead he would become Mr. Caldera’s direct supervisor.
James Grove is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
In the end Mr. Caldera filed a lawsuit against the state of California, the California prison system, and Mr. Grove individually, claiming disability-based harassment and a hostile work environment, among other things. At trial a state jury awarded Mr. Caldera $500,000 in damages, an award that was affirmed in 2018 after dueling appeals. In February 2019 the trial judge added almost $870,000 in costs and attorney fees.
Mr. Grove’s actions were responsible for 25 percent of the damages, the jury said, with the remainder allotted to the prison system for its actions and its inaction.
Mr. Caldera’s stuttering never affected his prison work, which mainly involved escorting troubled inmates to and from mental-health appointments. The prison’s chief psychologist called him an “outstanding” officer and testified that Mr. Grove’s tormenting, which the psychologist said he witnessed at least a dozen times, was mean-spirited and contributed to a “culture of joking” against Mr. Caldera.
Other officers joined in, according to testimony, calling Mr. Caldera nicknames such as “Mumbles” and “Machine Gun.”
The ridicule wore Mr. Caldera down, and he testified that he suffered “paranoia, anxiety, and distress.” After Mr. Grove’s mocking radio transmission — heard by as many as 100 prison employees — a sympathetic officer noted Mr. Caldera’s evident shock and “saddened” expression, the officer recalled in testimony.
“That’s kind of [messed] up, on the radio like that,” the officer later said to Mr. Caldera.
“Yeah, I get it all the time,” sighed Mr. Caldera.
Mr. Grove’s subsequent “get my name right” taunt — witnessed by the psychologist and plenty of others, according to the appellate opinion — was the trigger for Mr. Caldera finally to make an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint.
Just days later, however, Mr. Grove’s superior, a lieutenant, put Mr. Grove in line for direct oversight of Mr. Caldera. The two higher-ranking officers had worked together at another facility and sometime socialized together, according to testimony, but the lieutenant claimed in court documents that he showed no bias when giving Mr. Grove this upper hand.
As for the disciplinary issue, the lieutenant decided that Mr. Grove’s punishment should be to sign a generic list of job expectations, which Mr. Caldera later called “a slap on the hand,” according to court records.
In later testimony, the lieutenant would call Mr. Caldera a “liar” for his claims of discrimination — while the appellate court, in an interim opinion before the trial, flagged the lieutenant’s account of events as a possible cover for discrimination.
For several weeks, a panicky Mr. Caldera met with anyone he thought might be able to stop Mr. Grove from becoming his direct boss. Nothing changed: His superiors indicated they wouldn’t “be held hostage” by Mr. Caldera’s EEO complaint, a different lieutenant testified.
Mr. Caldera ultimately met with the prison warden, who said he’d look into the matter. Yet only a few days later — shortly before becoming Mr. Caldera’s official boss — Mr. Grove was at it again, according to testimony.
The sergeant, a big man known as Rhino, attended a training session about the prison’s electric fences. When another sergeant asked Mr. Grove how he was doing, she testified, he responded with a fake stammer:
“Everything is fine except for Ca- Ca- Ca- Caldera.”
Mr. Grove went on to mimic his future employee “throughout the whole conversation,” she testified.
“It seems striking to us,” said the appellate court in affirming the jury’s verdict, “that the harassment was so pervasive within the institution that Grove apparently felt he could openly mimic Caldera’s stutter in front of his peers … without any sense of shame or fear of reprisal.”
The EEO complaint ended up sidetracked at the prison: About a week after Mr. Grove became his direct supervisor, Mr. Caldera got a letter saying that stuttering isn’t an EEO matter — and that his problems therefore were being bounced back as a “supervisory issue.”
About a month later, without further action, the prison’s associate warden wrote to the EEO officer that the matter was “resolved,” according to court records.
Mr. Caldera predictably did not enjoy working for Mr. Grove, although he wasn’t mocked to his face anymore. He filed a different discrimination charge and requested a transfer as an accommodation of his disability, which wasn’t acted upon, according to court documents. He testified that the sergeant was “consistently critical” of his work and treated Mr. Caldera differently than his fellow officers.
Mr. Caldera began taking anti-anxiety medication, he said in a deposition, and suffered from feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia that he never had experienced at work before.
After about nine months, Mr. Grove moved to become supervisor at the prison’s weapons range, where Mr. Caldera often had worked as an instructor. Unlike previous supervisors, the sergeant called Mr. Caldera to instruct at the range only once or twice, according to testimony.
Mr. Caldera filed his lawsuit a few months after Mr. Grove’s reassignment. Since the resulting trial he has taken an early retirement, and no longer works as a corrections officer.
“It was just too stressful an environment for him to continue in,” said his lawyer, Todd F. Nevell.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Caldera v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 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.
During this case, Mr. Caldera was represented by Scolinos, Sheldon & Nevell.