FORT LAUDERDALE — A federal jury has awarded $210,000 to a Broward County School District carpenter who suffered retaliation for complaining about racial discrimination and other issues.
As part of the retaliation, Dennis Brown, who has asthma, was forced to work in a portable classroom that was infested with mold and mildew, according to the court judgment.
Brown, 52, of Lauderdale Lakes, is one of the school district’s most prolific whistleblowers.
In the lawsuit, he alleged that his supervisors retaliated against him after he began filing complaints dating back to 1998, alleging racial discrimination, harassment and disparate workplace conditions. He has also reported incidents of theft of supplies and fraud in the workplace.
As a result, he alleged, he was suspended, harassed and subjected to several investigations and a hostile work environment. Even though he informed supervisors of his asthmatic condition, he was regularly assigned to perform hazardous duties, causing his condition to worsen, according to the lawsuit.
Despite providing repeated notes from doctors, he was assigned in 2007 to work on a crew that performed work on portable classrooms infested with mold and mildew.
“I’m glad this is finally over, and hopefully everyone has learned some lessons from it,” Brown said of the verdict. “This has been very hard on me, and my family.”
The jury returned the verdict after a two-day trial and less than an hour of deliberations.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Kenneth Eric Trent represented Brown in the case.
“Defendant has been notified numerous times of Plaintiff’s condition and has been provided documentation of same on multiple occasions,” Trent wrote in the lawsuit.
“After receiving such notification and documentation Defendant has repeatedly denied Plaintiff his requested accommodations. As the result of Defendant’s refusal to provide the accommodations, such as allowing him to work in areas not contaminated by mold and other significant airborne pollutants, Plaintiff’s health has been damaged,” the lawsuit further alleged.
Brown said he hopes the jury verdict ends the ordeal, but said he doubts it will.
“No one can imagine what I’ve been through,” he said. “They tried to destroy me, and it’s been tough.”
School district officials would not comment on the case, or the jury’s finding.
But according to a Nov. 16 memo distributed to school board members, Brown’s hope for closure may not be realized, after all.
“Please be advised that after a two day trial in Federal Court in the above referenced case [Dennis O. Brown vs. The School Board of Broward County, Florida], the jury rendered a verdict of $210,000 in favor of the Plaintiff on the issue of retaliation for an assignment to a portable renovation crew,” school district attorney Edward J. Marko wrote to board members about the case.
The lawsuit was filed in federal District Court in Fort Lauderdale in 2007, after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigated, and did not reach a conclusion about his allegations. The federal agency that enforces workplace compliance with civil rights laws, did however, grant him the right to sue his employer.
His first case alleged racial discrimination, which would have violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The lawsuit was later amended to include allegations of retaliation for filing claims
alleging that his civil rights had been violated.
School board attorneys filed motions to have the entire case dismissed. District Court Judge William P. Dimitrouleas issued a summary judgment in favor of the school board, and later dismissed the ADA counts.
The judge initially let stand the racial discrimination and retaliation claims, but ended up dismissing the racial discrimination claim after both sides had rested their cases, and before the case went to the jury.
Jurors did deliberate on the retaliation claim, and returned a quick verdict in Brown’s favor, which the district is now challenging.
“The School Board will file post trial motions renewing its motion for judgment as a matter of law and an alternative for remittitur/new trial,” Marko concluded in his memo.
The court rejected those motions, and let the verdict stand. There is no indication of whether the district will pay the judgment or mount a full appeal, which would have to be filed with U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, in Atlanta.
Trent said supervisors never wanted to hear any of his client’s complaints over the years, and labeled him a troublemaker.
Some of the complaints Brown has filed include allegations of improper destruction of invoices for purchases and construction work. Brown says the invoices showed purchases for supplies and equipment that never made it to the school district and were not used in schools.
He also filed complaints with the FBI, alleging fraudulent invoices were filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma.
District officials have not offered any reaction to the allegations, but Brown says he will continue his watchdog efforts.
“There is so much corruption in the school system, and everybody knows it, but are afraid to speak out,” he said. “I’ve gone to the superintendent and all the school board members, but they look the other way. But, I’m glad the FBI is paying attention.’’
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Dennis Brown