The State Worker

California prison system loses bid to overturn $1 million discrimination award

A Sacramento appellate court has upheld a jury’s verdict that racial discrimination motivated state prison officials to fire an African American employee and then lie about key facts of her dismissal at trial.

Now the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must decide whether to pay more than $1 million in damages and interest to Terralyn Renfro, plus more than half that much in court costs.

“We disagree with the decision,” said Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa, “and we are exploring our legal options.”

The department could ask the California Supreme Court to take the case, a statistical long shot since the high court rejects most appeals.

“But I won’t be surprised if they do it,” said Renfro’s attorney, Mary-Alice Coleman.

Renfro was a contract psychologist at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione when she was fired in 2007 for allegedly starting a prison library without management approval, insubordination, and “concern that she might be the type of person who shared information with general population inmates,” according to the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s recounting of the case.

Appellate court Justices Vance Raye, Ronald Robie and Louis Mauro noted that there was no direct evidence of racial slurs, jokes or other slights, and that evidence of racial discrimination in the case was “thin.” But they said the jury was within its prerogative to “draw the same reasonable inference plaintiff drew” that she was discriminated against because she was African American.

Renfro’s complaint gained strength, the appellate court said, from a “pernicious pattern” of “department personnel lying” that obscured the circumstances and cause for her dismissal. Other evidence presented at trial showed that management approved the library, that Renfro didn’t argue with her managers and that she withdrew from a volunteer counseling program after rumors circulated that she was too close to an inmate in the program.

If the award stands, Corrections must pay Renfro $945,480 in damages plus 7 percent annual interest from the date of the verdict, $550,000 in trial court costs and attorney fees and a yet-to-be-billed sum for appellate court costs.