Ulster Corrections Officers Face Racial Lawsuit

A racial discrimination lawsuit has been reopened by the U.S. Court of Appeals after being dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. 

On Friday, Nov. 1, an appeals court reinstated the lawsuit filed by five current and former Ulster County corrections officers who claim the county jail was rife with racist remarks and mistreatment from coworkers and supervisors. 

The plaintiffs, Norman James, Tyrone Brodhead, Alphonso Lacey, Pamela Lancaster and Timothy Ross —all of whom are Black — initially filed an employment discrimination lawsuit on Aug. 30, 2016. 

The lawsuit named Ulster County as the defendant, as well as former Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum and wardens of Ulster County Jail Jon Becker and Louis T. Russo Sr., who are all white. 

The five corrections officers claimed there was a repetitive pattern of racial hostility exhibited by their coworkers and supervisors, including the use of racial slurs. 

The plaintiffs described a hostile work environment in which Black employees are “passed over for promotions in favor of their white counterparts, demoted by their white superiors, provided fewer opportunities for training than their white counterparts, afforded fewer privileges in comparison with their white counterparts, disciplined more severely than their white counterparts for similar offenses, subjected to racial slurs directed at them and directed at others in their presence by their white counterparts and are forced out of leadership positions to the extent they ever held such a position to begin with by their white superiors,” according to 2018 James v. Blarcum. 

As stated in the lawsuit, the slurs alleged to have been made included jokes about black men jogging, a comment that n****rs couldn’t be sergeants, naming a police K-9 “Mandingo Hunter” and calling a black person “jigaboo.”

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York dismissed the lawsuit on Sept. 28, 2018 because the alleged incidents happened too far in the past. It also stated that the corrections officers “failed to adduce admissible evidence of severe and pervasive conduct required to maintain a ‘hostile work environment’ cause of action.” 

It concluded that “there is no evidence of a race-based motive for the race-neutral allegations set forth by plaintiffs in support of their claims.” 

However, in overturning that ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “The record is replete with evidence of racially derogatory language from coworkers and supervisors,” as mentioned in Mid Hudson News.

In total, there were at least 12 instances of racial slurs during the 2014-2015 and 2007-2008 period, the court observed, indicating a persistent pattern of behavior that negates the claim that the issue happened too far in the past.

While the appeals court ruled that there was enough evidence to allow the case to go to trial in U.S. District Court, it honored the decision made by the lower court to dismiss claims against individual corrections officers and Van Blarcum, according to The Daily Freeman. 

The jury may find the county accountable for the hostile work environment because there is no evidence that any of the officers who made racist comments were confronted or reprimanded after the plaintiffs reported various incidents.

In addition, the appeals court discovered that County Personnel Director Sheree Cross was informed of some of these incidents. Yet, “there is no evidence she investigated, and awareness followed by a failure to act can result in a finding of liability,” the court ruled according to Mid Hudson News.

Nicole Zanchelli
About Nicole Zanchelli 82 Articles
Nicole Zanchelli is a fourth-year journalism major with a sociology and Italian studies minor. This is her third semester on The Oracle. Previously, she worked as a sports assistant copy editor, an arts & entertainment copy editor and features copy editor. Her favorite articles to read and write deal with exposing corruption and analyzing social injustices.