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Blount v. Stroud

October 6, 2009

JERRI BLOUNT, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
JOSEPH STROUD, AN INDIVIDUAL, AND JOVON BROADCASTING, WJYS-TV 62/34, AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.

No. 01 L 2330

Honorable Allen Goldberg, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Theis

MODIFIED UPON DENIAL OF REHEARING

Following a jury trial, defendants Jovon Broadcasting and Joseph Stroud, the owner and operational manager of Jovon Broadcasting, were found liable for retaliation against plaintiff Jerri Blount, a former employee of Jovon Broadcasting. The jury awarded Blount a total of $3,082,350 in damages, which was comprised of $257,350 for back pay, $25,000 for physical and/or emotional pain and suffering, and $2,800,000 in punitive damages. The court also awarded Blount $1,182,832.10 in attorney fees and costs. On appeal, defendants contend that:

(1) the trial court erred in denying their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because Blount's retaliation claim was preemempted by the Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/1-101 et seq. (West 2006)); (2) the trial court erred in denying their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because Blount's retaliation claim was not cognizable under section 1981 of the United States Civil Rights Act of 1991 (42 U.S.C. §1981 (2000)); (3) the trial court erred in awarding Blount attorney fees; (4) the trial court erred in submitting Blount's request for punitive damages to the jury; (5) the jury's award of $2,800,000 in punitive damages is excessive; and (6) the trial court erred in denying defendants' motion for a new trial where certain evidentiary errors committed during the trial unfairly prejudiced defendants and tainted the jury's verdict.

In 2007, we found that the circuit court lacked the subject matter jurisdiction to entertain Blount's retaliation claim under section 8-111(C) of the Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/8-111(C) (West 2006)) and reversed the jury's verdict without addressing the remaining issues raised by defendants. Blount v. Stroud, 376 Ill. App. 3d 935 (2007). The supreme court then reversed our decision, finding that the Human Rights Act did not present a jurisdictional bar to Blount's retaliation claim, whether it was a common law claim or a claim under section 1981 of the United States Civil Rights Act of 1991 (42 U.S.C. §1981 (2000)), because the Human Rights Act only addressed claims articulated expressly pursuant to that scheme. Blount v. Stroud, 232 Ill. 2d 302, 317-18 (2009). The supreme court accordingly remanded this cause to us to address defendants' remaining contentions. For the reasons that follow, we now affirm the judgment entered by the circuit court.

The record discloses the following facts and procedural history relevant to this appeal. In her complaint, as amended, Blount alleged the following. Blount, an African-American woman, was employed by Jovon Broadcasting, a Chicago-area television station, from 1993 until she was terminated in October 2000. At the time of her termination, Blount was the local programming time sales manager. Stroud, who is African-American, owned Jovon and managed all of its operations. Bonnie Fouts, a Caucasian-American woman discharged from employment at Jovon in 2000, filed a charge of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC), in which she claimed that she had been the victim of racial and sexual harassment. After being given the right to sue by the EEOC, Fouts filed a civil rights lawsuit in the United States District Court against Stroud and Jovon. Blount witnessed the racial discrimination and sexual harassment of Fouts and agreed to testify on Fouts' behalf.*fn1 Blount claimed that she was discharged from Jovon on October 19, 2000, in retaliation for the fact that she had agreed to testify on behalf of Fouts.

Blount claimed that this retaliation was actionable under both the common law tort of retaliatory discharge and section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (42 U.S.C. §1981 (2000)). Specifically, regarding the Civil Rights Act claim, Blount alleged that defendants harassed her, intimidated her, and terminated her employment because she agreed to "support" Fouts and to testify on her behalf in her race and sex discrimination suit. Blount alleged that these actions of defendants interfered with her "at will employment contract," and were a violation of section 1981. In her common law claim, Blount alleged that Jovon wrongfully terminated her in violation of Illinois public policy because she refused to perjure herself to protect defendants in the Fouts matter. Blount also asserted claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress against both defendants.

The circuit court ultimately conducted a jury trial of Blount's claims of retaliation, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Because defendants do not contest the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury's verdict in this appeal, we will merely present the evidence relevant to the issues raised.*fn2

Stroud testified as an adverse witness that he and his wife, Yvonne, are the sole shareholders of Jovon, which is a small television broadcasting corporation. Jovon operates WJYS, Channel 62, in the Chicago area. WJYS broadcasts primarily religious programs, infomercials, and other advertisements. WJYS also broadcasts "community-based programs" and "local ministry programs." Stroud insisted that Jovon is a diverse workplace that is not operated on a racial basis.

However, Cathy Harden, Stroud's executive assistant, testified that there were discussions at the firm about the need to "hire more whites." Harden also described Stroud as having a bad temper. Harden, who is Caucasian, was also teased about being "white" and having "made it through" more than a week at Jovon.

Blount testified that Stroud hired her in 1993 to work as a program screener. After several years, Stroud promoted Blount to the sales department. There, Blount was responsible for selling air time to infomercial broadcasters. In addition to her salary, Blount was paid a commission on accounts she brought to the station which was based on how much air time she sold them. In May 2000, Stroud made Blount his local sales manager, which meant that at least four other sales representatives reported to her. At that time, Blount was Jovon's "best" salesperson, generating approximately $2 to $3 million in revenue for WJYS annually. As a result, Blount, who was a single mother of two, was earning roughly $250,000 a year.

Bonnie Fouts testified that she began working at WJYS in March of 1999. She began in the traffic department, which monitored broadcasts to make sure that the correct programming was being aired at the correct times. In January 2000, Rick Howell, who was the only other employee in the traffic department at the time, began to act in a "hostile" manner toward Fouts. He made inappropriate comments to her, calling her racial and sexual epithets such as "white girl" and "white bitch." When Fouts asked Howell to stop addressing her in that manner, Howell told her that he was her manager and that he could speak to her in any way he wished.

Fouts informed Stroud of Howell's behavior in the spring of 2000. Stroud initially offered Fouts money for her "pain and suffering and anguish." Fouts told Stroud that she did not want money; she wanted the harassment to stop. However, it did not. Fouts repeatedly spoke with Stroud, whom she characterized as a "very angry man with a bad temper," and asked him to intercede, but he did nothing. In April of 2000, Stroud moved Fouts to another department at Jovon, but the harassment did not stop. Fouts had several more discussions with Stroud about Howell's behavior. Fouts also began sending Stroud letters requesting that he do something about Howell's treatment of her, which Stroud admitted that he received. However, Stroud never discharged or disciplined Howell.

Stroud terminated Fouts's employment on August 24, 2000. Fouts felt that she was fired from a job that she "really liked" because she was being racially and sexually harassed and she reported that harassment. Fouts subsequently filed a charge of race and sex discrimination with the EEOC.

Stroud testified that on October 13, 2000, he received notice of Fouts' EEOC charge. Although Stroud believed that the charge was merely "legalese," he called a meeting of managers the same day. Only African-American managers attended the meeting. At that meeting, Blount indicated that she would be "supporting" Fouts in her charge of racial and sexual discrimination because she had witnessed Howell refer to Fouts numerous times as a "white bitch." Stroud admitted that he responded to Blount by stating that he did not understand "how a black person could side with a white person against a black person." Stroud also admitted that he stated that Fouts had placed the jobs of everyone at Jovon at risk by filing the EEOC charge. Stroud further stated that there was no place for independent opinions at his company.

Rick Howell testified that the charges levied by Fouts were "fictitious." He denied referring to Fouts as the "white bitch" and denied that Stroud said anything about a "black person siding with a white person" at the meeting. Howell maintained that Fouts was treated well by everyone at Jovon, but she "played the race card."

Blount and Stroud testified that several days after the meeting, they went for a walk together to discuss Blount's involvement in the Fouts matter. Stroud testified that during this conversation, he never told Blount to lie about what happened with Fouts. Blount testified that Stroud asked her what she was "going to say in regards to Bonnie [Fouts]," and she responded that she would not lie. Stroud responded that he did not "get it," and called her an "ignorant nigger." Stroud also told her that she should not "side with" Fouts because "white people" have "done nothing for her," and because she should do what he told her to do.

Stroud then gave Blount a photograph of himself with President Clinton. Stroud had signed the photograph and told her that it could be her "key" to getting work at any television station she wanted because she knew the man who was "sitting there with the president" in the photograph. Stroud also told her that the photograph would make "a powerful statement." Stroud denied giving Blount this photograph, but later admitted doing so once he was shown that he had signed it and addressed it to her. Stroud explained that the picture was taken while he was on a trip to Africa with President Clinton, based on which Stroud donated several hundred thousand dollars for H.I.V. relief. Stroud added that he had been invited on the trip by Rev. Jesse Jackson. Stroud described President Clinton as a friend and stated that he was on the board of trustees of the Bill Clinton Presidential Library. Stroud gave Blount the photograph because he was proud of it and because he wanted to make Blount proud; he denied giving it to her to show that he had "friends in high places."

Blount then admonished Stroud for having witnessed the harassment of Fouts and having done nothing. Blount testified that this made Stroud "irate." According to Blount, Stroud then started screaming at her and told her that she needed to know who she was "up against," asserting that he was "one of the richest niggers in the world," and that she did not know who she was "fucking with." Stroud also stated that he could cause her "to cease to exist."

On another occasion shortly thereafter, they began to discuss the Fouts matter again, and Stroud became "belligerent and crazed." He told her again that he could cause her "not to exist." Blount became frightened of Stroud based on these comments, which she perceived as threats.

Although Stroud would often yell and scream at her, Stroud had never threatened her like this before. Blount then began to suffer "severe anxiety attacks," from which she developed an infected esophagus.

However, in his testimony, Stroud denied threatening Blount. Rather, Stroud believed that the actions by Fouts and Blount were a conspiracy to extort money from the station. Stroud explained that he had done "so much" for Blount by hiring her and training her to be a successful salesperson that he felt Blount "betrayed" him, which made him "very angry." Stroud also believed that Blount's attorney had "put her up" to taking this position against him. Stroud described the whole situation as a "conspiracy" by Blount, Fouts, and their attorneys. Stroud added that if the Federal Communications Commission learned that WJYS discriminated on the basis of race, it could lose its broadcasting license. Stroud also admitted that he knew it was illegal to fire someone in retaliation for testifying.

Six days after receiving Fouts' charge, Stroud suspended Blount's employment. Stroud explained that he made this decision because Rick Howell, who was also his nephew, told him that Blount went around Jovon telling people that the station was "hers." Stroud also said that Ted France, another sales person, advised him that Blount had directed business to a competitor. However, Stroud admitted that he did not have proof that Blount diverted business. Stroud also believed that Blount did not have respect for him and that she was not organized. Shortly after he suspended Blount, Stroud terminated her employment. Blount never returned to work after her suspension, and Stroud never paid her any further wages. Stroud terminated her employment on November 20, 2000. Blount commenced the present action on Feburary 23, 2001.

Several months after her termination from Jovon, Blount was hired by Affiliated Media. During her first three years there, she earned between roughly $57,000 and $90,000, which was less than half what she was earning at Jovon.

Nevertheless, at least a year after Blount filed this action, Stroud offered Blount the opportunity to return to work for him as an independent contractor. Blount testified that Stroud also asked her to "forget about the lawsuit," meaning the present suit, and told her that she should come back to work for him because he "didn't want to see [her] and [her] boys fall over a cliff." Stroud also told Blount that he had paid her "so much money" and that "Bonnie didn't pay your bills" and "get you on the other side of Harlem." Stroud gave her a check for $10,000, which Stroud testified was for "future services." Blount admitted that she cashed the check, but explained that she did so because she believed she was owed the money for sales commissions that she had not been paid prior to her termination. Blount did not return to work for Jovon.

Sometime in the latter half of 2001, after the present suit was filed, Stroud learned that Blount had been surreptitiously recording their conversations since as early as September 2000. Blount testified that she had done so because she wanted proof that Stroud had told her to perjure herself and had threatened that she would "cease to exist" if she did not.

In September 2001, Stroud sued Blount civilly for eavesdropping. Stroud testified that he did so because he wanted to "let her suffer some of the consequences that I am suffering," and because "there would be consequences for her," which may cause her to withdraw her retaliation lawsuit. Although the circuit court judge presiding over the civil eavesdropping case entered a temporary restraining order ...


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