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Black boss's n-word rant to black employee costs him, nonprofit $280,000

By Erinn Cawthon and Kristina Sgueglia, CNN
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A black employee sues, claiming her black boss used the n-word in a rant against her
  • A jury awards Brandi Johnson a total of $280,000 in damages
  • Jury hears recording in which nonprofit founder Rob Carmona uses the n-word eight times
  • "I come from a different time ... What I'm trying to do is help," Carmona says during trial

Editor's note: This article contains offensive language.

New York (CNN) -- A federal jury in New York ruled Tuesday that a man who identifies as black and Hispanic and the nonprofit he founded must pay punitive damages to an African-American employee after a previous ruling that the use of the "n-word" is inappropriate among minorities in a workplace.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by Brandi Johnson, who is African-American, against STRIVE, the employment center where she worked, claiming she was a victim of a hostile workplace after enduring verbal harassment and a series of statements filled with profanity and racial slurs from her supervisor. The employment center in East Harlem argued that the use of the word was part of a "tough-love culture."

The jury ruled Tuesday that center founder Rob Carmona must pay $25,000 and his organization must pay $5,000 in punitive damages.

Jurors last week awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages to Johnson, 38, who sued Carmona personally and STRIVE, which he founded in 1984.

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Carmona's lawyer, Diane Krebs, issued a statement that said in part: "We are disappointed by the verdict, as we do not believe that it comports with the full facts applicable to the case. Nevertheless, we respect the jury's decision and the judicial process. We are exploring all our options moving forward, including appeal, and look forward to the judicial process taking its entire course."

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Carmona's n-word-peppered rant toward Johnson was captured on a four-minute audio recording on Johnson's iPhone without her boss knowing in March 2012 and was played for a federal jury last week.

"You and (a previous employee) are just alike. Both of you are smart as s---, but dumb as s---. You know what it is ... both of you are n------, y'all act like n------ all the time," Carmona said to Johnson, according to audio evidence played in court and obtained by CNN.

Carmona called Johnson the n-word eight times during the recording.

"And I'm not saying the term n------ as derogatory; sometimes it's good to know when to act like a n-----, but y'all act like n------ all the time ... both of you very bright, but both y'all act like n------ at inappropriate times," Carmona said in the audio recording.

From the stand Tuesday, Carmona explained tearfully that he was only trying to help.

"I come from a different time ... What I'm trying to do is help ... that's the transition... (this case) has showed me I got to take stock in that at my age," said Carmona, 61.

According to STRIVE, Carmona is a Harlem native who spent his early teenage years addicted to drugs and in and out of prison. He found solace in an alternative incarceration program where he cleaned up and eventually attended college. The center's website says that it has helped nearly 50,000 individuals across America enter the workforce.

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"This case is most important because this is the first where we essentially have the n-word on trial," said Johnson's attorney, Marjorie Sharpe. "You have heard the connotation that the n-word can have different meanings depending on the speaker; there is an undisguised belief that if the person saying the n-word is black or African-American, somehow it makes it OK.

"There are a number of cases where the n-word has been used in a workplace, but usually it's been done between people of different races, and when we're having that discussion, it seems that it's clear that if you're not African-American and you use the n-word, absolutely it's insulting," Sharpe said.

Johnson claimed she was a victim of a pattern of negative comments and that the audio recording was her last stand.

"This has been a long and arduous journey for me working at STRIVE, and to be belittled and degraded by the founder and to have him justify him disrespecting me was hurtful," Johnson said Tuesday. "So for the jury to make a statement saying that the n-word is not permissible in the workplace and or any business I was happy about that, yes."

Johnson claimed Carmona targeted her with negative comments after she tried to defend a graduate from a STRIVE program who had allegedly been sexually harassed by a STRIVE employee, according to the complaint.

After many attempts to have the issued addressed, Johnson claims Carmona showed no interest in the allegations and told other employees not to socialize with Johnson, according to the complaint.

On April 11, 2012, Johnson sent a formal complaint to Phil Weinberg, the organization's CEO, telling him of the numerous harassing, discriminatory and retaliatory acts she had endured from Carmona. Weinberg said that he did not wish to discuss Carmona's actions and that Johnson was being "out of line" and "emotional," according to the complaint.

On June 11, 2012, Weinberg fired Johnson.

Johnson said she was terminated in retaliation for her complaints about the graduate's sexual harassment and because of her race and gender.

"Hopefully this sets an example that it won't be tolerated no matter what your race is," Johnson said after the ruling Tuesday.

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