A federal judge, ruling on a civil rights complaint filed by a black maintenance worker who recently won a half-million dollars in a related civil trial, has found that First Virginia Banks Inc. discriminated against the man when employees called him "Chicken Little" and forced him out of his job.
U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr., in a ruling Friday that the two parties received yesterday, said the defendants' continued "insensitivity" during the trial helped prove the case for Robert Lee Holland, 46, a Woodbridge resident who worked at First Virginia in Falls Church for 10 months in 1988 and 1989.
When the defendants' attempt to deny the name-calling became "spurious, they resorted to a belittlement of the claim by characterizing the conduct as the type of kidding and joking that normally goes on in the workplace," Bryan wrote.
The judge chastised the company and Donald D. Brennan, Holland's former supervisor, because they "have still, to this day, not acknowledged or apparently even recognized, the humiliation that such conduct inflicts."
Thomas P. Jennings, general counsel for First Virginia, said the company was disappointed in the ruling and added that "some of the judge's finding of fact are directly contradictory to the facts that Mr. Brennan testified about."
Jennings also said that "Chicken Little is a fairy tale" and not by definition derogatory to any racial group.
The civil rights ruling comes one week after a federal jury in Alexandria awarded Holland $521,000 in damages, finding that First Virginia retaliated against Holland when he complained that Brennan called him names such as Chicken Little, Watermelon Man and Sparerib Kid. Jennings said the firm would appeal that verdict.
The civil rights hearing before the judge and the civil trial before the six-member jury panel were conducted simultaneously.
Holland testified during the three-day trial this month that he complained about the names to Brennan, but was told he was being too sensitive. Four months later, after Holland took his complaint to Brennan's supervisor, Holland said he received notice that the company was accepting a resignation he never submitted.
Victor M. Glasberg, Holland's attorney, said Bryan's ruling represents "a seal of approval" for the jury's verdict. "The judge's message is important for the company to ponder, since he effectively points out that the very defense offered is indicative of the problem," said Glasberg.
Bryan's ruling includes $100 in nominal damages for Holland.
In his ruling, Bryan rejected "assertions that the name-calling was only meant in fun, and that no intimidation or racial harassment of the plaintiff was intended." Bryan concluded that the "insensitivity that prompts such assertions has helped prove the plaintiff's case."
The judge also rejected the contention that Holland resigned voluntarily, as described in testimony of three First Virginia executives.