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Racial Discrimination Costs Michigan DOC Over $1 Million

Racial Discrimination Costs Michigan DOC Over $1 Million

by David Reutter

Last year, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) paid more than $1 million in damages in two lawsuits that accused the department of failing to take action despite having knowledge of blatant racism by an MDOC supervisor.

Faced with allegations that Sergio Paglia, a maintenance department supervisor, was discriminating against African-American employees, the MDOC conducted an investigation.

According to a mediation summary in one of the lawsuits, the MDOC “did its own internal investigation ... which found that Plaintiffs were discriminated against and their allegations were substantiated for discriminatory harassment.... Incredibly, despite this, the MDOC did nothing to address the racism, despite constant complaints from Plaintiff and other workers.”

Paglia was described by other MDOC employees as a “racist idiot” and a “bigot.” A press release issued by the attorneys representing prison workers who sued stated that Paglia “admitted in his deposition he has mental problems and sometimes he is other people (on the day he was served with the complaint he said he was George Washington). He says black people in America have not been discriminated against since the 1970’s and they need to stop whining.... Additionally, [Paglia] would single out Plaintiffs and the other black workers, yelling at them and demeaning them on a daily basis. The racial environment was so blatantly obvious to everyone working in the shop that whenever [Paglia] came around, the White workers would joke that the Blacks better run for cover.”

The MDOC never reprimanded or punished Paglia despite repeated complaints and the findings of its own investigation. The work environment did not improve much when Paglia retired. While his replacement, Rick Kroske, was more subtle in his racist attitudes, it was evident that he “never liked blacks” and treated them differently, too.

A lawsuit brought by Ryan Correctional Facility employee Michael Hester was the first to go to trial, and resulted in a finding that a racist environment existed in MDOC’s maintenance department. The jury awarded Hester $452,000, and the trial court subsequently granted $127,882 in attorney fees and $9,706.03 in costs.

On the heels of that verdict, MDOC officials were eager to avoid further litigation. The department agreed in February 2014 to a $600,000 settlement in a separate complaint filed by prison employees Johnny Tolbert, Jeffrey Smith and James Hedrick, who were represented by attorneys James Rasor and Jonathan Marko. See: Tolbert v. Michigan Department of Corrections, Wayne County Circuit Court (MI), Case No. 12-01721-CD.

The MDOC appealed the jury verdict and fee award in the Hester case, and in June 2014 the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part in an unpublished ruling. The appellate court upheld the verdict, but remanded for reconsideration of the trial court’s award of attorney fees and costs. See: Hester v. Department of Corrections, 2014 Mich. App. LEXIS 1038 (Mich.Ct.App. June 5, 2014).


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Related legal case

Hester v. Department of Corrections