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Friday, August 7, 2009

Racism: US court awards Nigerian $75,000

By Paul Ohia with agency reporter

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in the United States has been ordered to pay $75,000 to one of its former Nigerian civil engineers, Uche Ikwut-Ukwa, and pick up his legal fees because he worked under a racially hostile environment.

The Nigerian won the verdict in Harrisburg federal court last week over how he was treated before he quit working for the Hollidaysburg-based PennDOT district in 2006, idnews.com reported yesterday.

Ikwut-Ukwa, who wrote a thesis, “Plan for a new railway passenger terminal, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Federal Republic of Nigeria” in 1983 at the University of Idaho, was passed over for promotions 15 times and there was evidence that the district’s top administrator made “monkey sounds” when speaking to him.

The judge said other black workers in the central Pennsylvania district also reported they regularly experience racially derogatory and insensitive conduct by their fellow employees. PennDOT, however, declined comment.

US Magistrate J. Andrew Smyser had said in his ruling that, “The process for promotions did not reasonably and objectively provide equal consideration” to Ikwut-Ukwa, and therefore amounted to a hostile employment condition.

Smyser accepted the evidence that the district’s top administrator, Thomas Prestash, twice made “monkey sounds” when speaking to Ikwut-Ukwa.

“When Mr. Prestash first made the monkey sounds in 1997, Ikwut-Ukwa responded by comparing him to Fuzzy Zoeller,” Smyser wrote. “Fuzzy Zoeller had recently made comments about Tiger Woods, comments thought by many persons to have been racially toned and inappropriate. Later, Prestash repeated the monkey sounds in 2006” shortly after Ikwut-Ukwa learned he would not be able to apply for a promotion, pottsmerc.com reported.

The judge said other black workers in the central Pennsylvania district “experienced day-to-day racially derogatory and insensitive conduct by their co-workers and perceived there to be a lack of opportunity for advancement for African-American employees,” Smyser said.

After Ikwut-Ukwa filed discrimination charges with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, PennDOT denied him tuition reimbursement, leave time for employment-related education and higher pay for performing duties of another job classification.

Smyser ruled that those actions did not amount to discrimination based on race, colour or national origin. Witte said Ikwut-Ukwa's legal costs probably exceeded $100,000.

“I think the real question that’s remaining here is what is PennDOT going to do now to ensure that this doesn’t happen to anyone in the future, any persons of colour, in 9-0 or PennDOT?” said Ikwut-Ukwa’s lawyer, Harry L. Witte.

The decision, issued Wednesday following an eight-day trial, can be appealed. PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar said Monday the decision about whether to appeal had not been made.

“We do take matters like this very seriously and we are going to carefully review the decision,” Chizmar said.

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