Johnson was the target of a co-worker who harassed him and used racial slurs that caused him stress and humiliation.
Johnson was at an August 2008 company barbecue with his family when co-worker Paul St. Hilaire walked up to him and said, “Medro calls me Masta” in slave dialect. Then Johnson then said St. Hilaire started laughing, it was reported in The Sacramento Bee.
Johnson, a descendant of slaves, would later testify in court that he was humiliated to be referred to as a slave in front of his wife, son and daughter.
Although Johnson reported the incident, Christopher Whelan, Johnson’s attorney in the race harassment-retaliation case, said the evidence showed that Sears did not want to take action against St. Hilaire, one of its top sales producers nationally.
In another incident, Johnson said that he and St. Hilaire visited a client to sell home improvement products in Oct. 2008. Sometime during the outing, the two exchanged angry words and St. Hilaire told Johnson, “I’m going to get you and you’re not going to see it coming.”
Johnson said the harassment continued. St Hilaire repeatedly “bashed” Johnson with his shoulder during breaks in a company training session in Dec. 2008.
At one point, Hilaire called Johnson the “N” word and bashed him again, knocking Johnson’s hot coffee down the front of his shirt. Attorneys said St. Hilaire muttered the epithet so that Johnson could hear it.
When St.Hilare leaned in again for what appeared to be another bash, Johnson said, he hit the salesman in the lip with the back of his hand.
There were witnesses who saw the incident and Johnson was fired two days later.
Two months after his Dec. 2008 dismissal, Johnson, 50, who calls himself a private person, said his life was turned upside down. Not only did he lose his job, but he faces the prospect of losing his Elk Grove house because of the struggle to make ends meet. A foreclosure sale could occur as early as next month.
“I’ve been in a constant struggle since 2008,” Johnson said in an interview. “Once we depleted all of our savings, our retirement, our kids’ college fund, and then it got really tough.
“It’s scary before you get down to the end. Then it’s tough when you try to figure out how you’re going to make ends meet and at the same time, fight the battle against this huge corporation that doesn’t really care about you.”
Last Friday, after a one-month trial and more than 8 hours of deliberation, a Sacramento Superior Court jury awarded Johnson $5.2 million in damages, including $2.2 million to compensate for lost earnings, pain and suffering.
The other $3 million was for punitive damages, an award granted after the jury found that Sears’ policymakers and managers conducted themselves “with malice, oppression or fraud” for failing to investigate or act on Johnson’s complaints about the slur and other racial acts.
The verdict same more than two years after Whelan and his nephew, co-counsel Brian Whelan of Fresno, filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court.
St. Hilaire, who later left the company, could not be reached for comment.
“The message for Sears is that it just can’t ignore the law, no matter how much money the harasser earns for them,” said Whelan. “They subjected Medro to very serious risks and fear of retaliation.
“And they stepped over the line,” he said, “With subsequent acts by management to avoid being exposed for failing to follow the law.”