Boston lost two big-money lawsuits in the span of a remarkable few days as two different juries ruled that the school district had retaliated against Black men complaining of discrimination, leading those involved in the cases to say the district needs to get its act together.
The latest verdict saw a Suffolk County jury rule last week in favor of Jose Edwards, who said he’d been removed from his job as a dean at Madison Park Technical High School in 2015 after he had made a discrimination complaint against the district.
The jury granted him $410,080 in back pay and $533,110 for “emotional distress” — a total of $943,190, though his lawyer said the actual amount the city pays out could balloon significantly with compound interest on the back pay and $840,000 in attorneys fees he’s seeking for the city to shell out.
In Edwards’ case — a suit filed in 2016 against the city and then-Superintendent Tommy Chang — the jury ruled that the city’s school district had taken an “adverse employment action” against him, and decided that his making a “protected” complaint was a “determinative factor” in why, per court documents. In plain English, that means that the jury said that the district indeed told Edwards not to come back to work, and did so because he’d made a discrimination complaint — punishing him for doing it, which is against the law.
“You can’t retaliate against someone if they oppose what they find in good faith to be discrimination,” said Robert Johnson, Edwards’ lawyer and also his former professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Edwards had previously complained that he’d been passed over for district jobs because of his race and gender.
Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Mayor Michelle Wu — who wasn’t in the big office back in 2016 — said, “Boston Public Schools is reviewing the verdict with the Law Department.” The jury did have the option of also hitting the city for punitive damages, but declined to do so.
But Johnson told the Herald that it’s time the city learned its lesson.
“What the new mayor needs to do is she needs to look into this school department and how they treat Black people,” Johnson said.
Al Holland, a highly regarded former schools administrator who the district periodically brings out of retirement to serve as principal when something goes wrong, was helming Madison Park at the time and sent Edwards the letter telling him not to come back to work at the bidding of the administration. Holland eventually testified for the defense, and he told the Herald he was glad Edwards prevailed.
“Boston Public Schools needs to reexamine their policies and procedures and figure out why we’re not following them,” Holland said. “If we just follow the policies and procedures, we’ll avoid a lot of these situations.”
Holland, a Black man who was headmaster of South Boston High School in the height of the 1970s busing crisis, said he’s seen the city make “great strides, for sure” on discrimination issues, “but it’s something that you have to work at, and when you stop working at it it can slip away.”
Both of them pointed to a strikingly similar case that a jury decided just three days before Edwards’, ruling that the city had to pay out $1.7 million because the school district had retaliated against then-gym-teacher Charles Sherman Neal for alleging discrimination. Neal, who worked at Boston Community Leadership Academy, made multiple complaints before the district eventually fired him.
“The city should put people in charge who take these policies and the law seriously,” Neal’s attorney Ilir Kavaja said about the case first reported by The Boston Globe last week.
The city has a month to decide whether to appeal each of these two verdicts.
Kavaja said Boston’s trying to get out of paying interest on the damages awarded. That’s a shade over $274,000 of the total award, and he’s opposing that attempt.
One element that makes this particularly striking is that it’s normally rare for civil cases to go to a jury trial at all. Usually they’re settled out of court, with the plaintiff dropping the suit in exchange for cash or other previsions agreed upon in a signed document. Indeed, over the past several years, the city has settled several dozen cases a year, but since 2016 only a small handful have gone to trial.
But one of those came just a few weeks before these two. In November, a federal jury awarded a $2 million judgment to Boston Police Lt. Detective Donna Gavin after determining that her boss had discriminated against her because of her gender, and then retaliated when she took issue with that.
Federal court documents show that the city is pushing to have the case retried or the judgment set aside — common requests for a defendant who just lost — and the BPD and Gavin are now enmeshed in a back and forth around dollar amounts before a judge is due to rule further in the new year.
This content was originally published here.