Orange County must pay a disabled juvenile hall corrections officer more than $820,000 for disability harassment that included co-workers offering $100 for photos of his deformed hand and blogging that he was a "rat" for reporting mistreatment of inmates, a state appeals court ruled. Justices reaffirmed an earlier jury verdict in Ralph Espinoza vs. County of Orange, a lawsuit filed under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act that claimed disability discrimination, retaliation and failure to prevent harassment.
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Ralph Espinoza often kept his right hand in his pocket because he was self-conscious about being born lacking fingers and a thumb. The offending blog posts started popping up in 2006, after Espinoza exposed the mistreatment at juvie. Espinoza was called "one arm bandit" and "rat claw boy" in these posts, Business Insurance's Roberto Ceniceros reports.
Espinoza sued, and a jury agreed that the county did little to prevent the harassment and was thus liable for it, awarding him $700 for medical expenses, $320,000 in lost earnings and $500,000 for mental distress.
The county appealed on grounds it had nothing to do with the creation of the blog, never approved it and, because posts were written anonymously, could do nothing to stop it. The harassment was not pervasive or severe enough to warrant action under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, the county also argued.
But California's Fourth Appellate District Court in Santa Ana cited evidence that showed county computers were used to blog the harassment. And the county's argument totally ignored incidents supervisors could have stopped, including co-workers scrawling "the claw" in Espinoza's work areas and putting their right hands in their pockets to mock him, justices ruled.