(CN) - A Texas county does not owe damages after a prosecutor offended a black colleague by expressing sympathy for lynching and the KKK, the 5th Circuit ruled.
The incident occurred in April 2009 while assistant district attorney and self-described "redneck" Cary Piel was preparing for trial in a case that involved a black woman who had desecrated a historic cemetery.
Piel said that the woman's actions "made him understand why people hung people from trees," and also made him "want to go home and put on his white pointy hat."
After Nadiya Williams-Boldware, a black woman hired as a misdemeanor prosecutor, told her supervisor about the comments, Piel received a verbal reprimand and was required to attend diversity training.
Some months later, however, Williams-Boldware reported Piel again for mentioning his need for a "boombox" to play a tape at trial
Williams-Boldware took the remark as a derogatory reference to black culture, and she also reported that another colleague had called her a "troublemaker" after the April incident.
The county required that colleague to attend diversity training, but Williams-Boldware closed out the year with a lawsuit against Denton County, the DA's office, Piel and two other staffers, for subjecting her to a hostile work environment.
Only claims against the county proceeded to trial, however, and a federal jury awarded Williams-Boldware $510,000 for past mental and physical pain, and future mental pain.
The court nevertheless upheld just the $170,000 award for past mental pain, because there was "no legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find that the hostile work environment proximately caused [Williams-Boldware's] physical pain and suffering or to find that she would suffer from mental anguish in the future."
On appeal, the 5th Circuit reversed this award as well.
"Denton County took seriously Williams-Boldware's complaints and its remedial efforts effectively halted the racially harassing conduct of which she complained," Judge Carl Stewart wrote for the three-judge panel. "Therefore, we conclude that the evidence does not support a hostile work environment claim and Denton County is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."
Denton County's response to Williams-Boldware's initial complaint against her "could not have been more prompt," the court found.
In addition, Piel did not make any more racially harassing remarks after completing diversity training, even if he may have joked about it.
"Whether Cary took the training seriously is not entirely determinative," the ruling states. "Instead, the relevant inquiry is whether Cary harassed Williams-Boldware because of her race subsequent to Denton County's reprimanding him and requiring that he attend diversity training. Williams-Boldware presented no evidence that Cary continued making similar comments nor did she show that other employees harassed her because of her race."
The panel also found that the claims against the individual defendants were properly dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity.