A federal appeals court has ordered a Pulaski, Tenn., dealership to defend a lawsuit by a former finance manager who claims he was targeted for discrimination when the dealer discovered that he has a biracial child.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reinstated an employment-related civil rights suit by Fred Tetro Jr. against Elliott Popham Pontiac-Oldsmobile-Buick-GMC Truck Inc. The case now returns to U.S. District Court in Tennessee for further pretrial proceedings and for trial, according to lawyers for both sides.
Dealer Elliott Popham hired Tetro, who is white, in July 1996 on the recommendation of the dealership's general manager.
The suit contends the relationship went well until Tetro's family, including his biracial daughter, visited him at work. A former co-worker testified that Popham rolled his eyes in a derogatory way when he saw the child.
Popham soon began ridiculing and insulting him about his weight in front of employees and co-workers, Tetro alleges, and was overheard on a phone call saying 'nobody ever told me he had a mixed-race child and this is going to hurt (Popham's) image.'
In November 1996, Tetro and Popham got into what the court called a 'heated argument' in the showroom. The suit contends that Popham threatened to call the police if Tetro did not leave.
Tetro left and did not return to the job. He sued for back pay, compensation for humiliation and embarrassment, and punitive damages.
Defense lawyer John Feeney of Nashville said the dealership denies any violations, adding that Tetro gave up his position by leaving the store after the confrontation with Popham and failing to return.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Higgins dismissed the case after Tetro's lawyer failed to appear on time for a pretrial conference because the time of the conference had been entered incorrectly on the lawyer's calendar.
The appeals court based in Cincinnati reinstated the case, saying the lawyer's one-hour tardiness was not deliberate or done in bad faith, nor did it harm the dealership's legal position.
The dealership also unsuccessfully argued that the federal and Tennessee civil rights laws do not apply since Tetro was not the direct target of the alleged discrimination.
'A white employee who is discharged because his child is biracial is discriminated against on the basis of his race, even though the root animus for the discrimination is a prejudice against the biracial child,' the court said. 'This means the dealership has been charged with reacting adversely to Tetro because of Tetro's race in relation to the race of his daughter. The net effect is that the dealership allegedly discriminated against Tetro because of his race.'
Tetro's lawyer, James Harris of Nashville, said, 'All we're looking for is a day in court.'