State Supreme Court Upholds $250K Jury Award in Racial Harassment Case

The Virginia Supreme Court has upheld the verdict of a Loudoun County Circuit Court jury requiring a Northern Virginia business owner to pay his former contractor $250,000 in damages for racial harassment and threatening statements.

According to court documents, Northern Virginia Kitchen Bath & Basement owner John Powell hired William Ellis, a Black man, in May 2017 as an independent contractor. Ellis began work on a homeowner’s basement bathroom in July that year, but a dispute soon led to Powell and the homeowner terminating the contract. When Ellis continued to work on the homeowner’s bathroom, Powell found out and left Ellis voicemails in which he said Ellis made “a n—er move” and that “we don’t play that sh— down here in Virginia, boy.”

According to the court documents, Powell told Ellis he hired him because of his color and said Ellis “pulled the same sh— that f—ing black people around here do” and that he “ruined it for the next black man.” Court documents also indicate Powell told Ellis he had “motorcycle clubs and gangs around.”

According to court documents, Ellis never called the police, contacted a court or sought legal advice after listening to the voicemails.

At trial, Ellis said he felt “kind of scared” and had “a nervous feeling” when he saw a motorcycle on the road. He also testified he changed his work schedule so he wouldn’t be on the same roads he thought Powell and his associates might travel.

When the homeowner posted Powell’s messages on social media and business-rating websites, Powell filed a complaint against the homeowner and Ellis alleging defamation and conspiracy to injure a trade business. Ellis then filed a counterclaim alleging racially motivated harassment and stalking.

A jury, following a three-day trial in October 2019, subsequently dismissed Powell’s case with prejudice and ordered him to pay Ellis $100,000 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages. Powell appealed, seeking to set aside Judge Jeanette A. Irby’s ruling that evidence in the case supported the jury’s verdict.

On April 15, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a 12-page opinion holding that evidence in the case was sufficient to support the jury’s verdict because Ellis felt intimidated, harassed, threatened and humiliated.

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