Brandi Johnson, left, and her lawyer, Marjorie M. Sharpe, leave federal court in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, after a civil jury awarded $30,000 in punitive damages in addition to the $250,000 in compensatory damages that had been awarded last week. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister)
by Blair Adams
(NNPA)–When Brandi Johnson landed a job with a non-profit organization geared toward helping African-Americans and minorities gain employment, the last thing she expected was to go to work each day and face racial slurs and harassment.
But Johnson, a 38-year-old New Yorker, said that was the reality during her two-year stint with STRIVE, a New York City-based non-profit group.
On Sept. 3, a federal jury awarded Johnson $250,000 in compensatory damages and $30,000 in punitive damages in a federal lawsuit she brought against STRIVE, and its founder, Rob Carmona, according to CNN. Carmona will be required to pay $25,000 of the punitive damages from his personal funds, with the remaining $5,000 to be paid by STRIVE.
A previous court ruling found that the use of slurs such as the “N-word” is inappropriate among minorities in a workplace.
“After being employed with STRIVE, within the first 30 days, the co-founder of the company, Mr. Rob Carmona began to verbally badger me and be very disrespectful,” Johnson said in an interview with the AFRO.
Johnson said Carmona’s behavior continued for the next two years, until she said Carmona called her the “N-word” several times in one particular tirade in March 2012, which Johnson secretly recorded. Despite having gained crucial evidence for her eventual lawsuit, Johnson said his words took a toll.
“I ran to the bathroom and cried for a while,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe that he would say something like that to me.”
Johnson stayed with STRIVE and endured the verbal abuse-which included Carmona screaming in her face and calling her stupid—because, as a single mother of two, she needed the income to support her family.
In an emotional interview Johnson said his actions were “demoralizing,” but she did what she had to do.
“I’m a single mother, I needed my job. I was in school working and trying to better myself and I needed to continue feeding my kids and provide a roof over their heads,” Johnson said.
Several attempts to reach Carmona via email and phone were unsuccessful; however, STRIVE issued the following statement:
“STRIVE is an equal opportunity employer with a long-standing commitment to diversity in all respects…STRIVE conducted an extensive investigation following Ms. Brandi Johnson’s legal complaint and concluded that, while language between Mr. Rob Carmona and Ms. Johnson was inappropriate and against STRIVE policy, there was no evidence of harassment or discrimination based on gender and race as claimed by the plaintiff.”
Johnson’s attorney, Majorie Sharpe, told the AFRO that “the use of the N-word isn’t acceptable and it won’t be tolerated.”
“My client complained several times to human resources and nothing was done,” Sharpe said. “Senior level employees simply said, that’s how Rob is.”
Johnson said her client took matters into her own hands and decided to record the March 14, 2012 rant by Carmona on her iPhone. What was captured that day was “shocking,” she said.
“Both of you are N- -; cause sometimes it’s good to know when to act like a N- -,” Carmona can be heard saying to Johnson on the recording, which was obtained by the AFRO.
During the conversation, Johnson repeatedly told Carmona how she was “really offended by that [word],” however Carmona continued on, saying, “You can be offended….but you and her act like N- -, and N- – let their feelings rule them.”
Johnson told the AFRO that at the time she filed the complaint against Carmona, she expected other women to come forward and take a stand with her, but she stood alone.
“This was not just for me, I was doing this for every woman there to come forward so something like this won’t ever happen again,” Johnson said. “No one wanted to do anything.”
According to CNN, a formal complaint sent in April 2012 to STRIVE CEO Phil Weinberg was disregarded, and Johnson was fired from her job by Weinberg that June.
“I didn’t deserve what I got from STRIVE,” she said.
According to STRIVE, Carmona is a Harlem native who had a troubled teenage life. Among several run-ins with the law, he was in and out of jail and was addicted to drugs. Carmona started the non-profit organization as a result of his experiences, hoping to help others like him seek a better life for themselves.
“I hope this makes other people aware that this kind of behavior can’t be tolerated,” Johnson said.
Blair Adams is a staff writer for the Afro American