LOS ANGELES — When Joan Wood called Jeffrey Graber a "cheap Jew" for not kicking in for the boss' Christmas gift, she probably never dreamed she'd end up paying him $10,000 for the insult.
Last month, the 41-year-old Graber, a former senior equipment operator at the Los Angeles branch of Litton Guidance and Control Systems, a major U.S. defense contractor, was awarded $2.2 million by a racially mixed Los Angeles jury. The damages were for the physical and emotional distress he suffered as a result of nine years of his supervisors' anti-Semitic slurs.
The court was scheduled to reconvene yesterday to consider Litton's motion for mistrial.
During the trial, Graber testified that the company's photocopying and binding division, Reprographics, where he worked from 1985 to 1994, was a hotbed of racism. It was a place, he said, where the plant manager and two supervisors hurled racially based epithets at Mexicans, Polish-Americans and Jews.
"They were always using the `n' word for black people," Graber said in an interview from his home in a Detroit suburb, where he moved three years ago; he now works as a car salesman. "They told `Polack' jokes. Excuse me for saying that."
In addition to being called a "cheap Jew," Graber told the court that when he'd show up at work wearing something new, Wood, the division's assistant supervisor, would ask him whether he'd "Jewed them down on the price."
"They called me kike, dirty Jew, Big Nose, [they talked about me] Jewing them down — it was unbelievable," Graber said. "It was one big joke to them."
Graber said the insults sent him on a downward physical and emotional spiral that landed him in more than two dozen doctors' offices and a hospital emergency room, culminating in his reliance on a heavy daily dose of two anti-depressants.
A court-appointed physician, and the jury, agreed with Graber. The plant manager and two supervisors named in his suit were declared guilty of harassment, and are each personally liable for $10,000 in damages. Litton is liable for more than $550,000 in lost wages and emotional distress, and more than $1.6 million in punitive damages.
Graber's lawyer, James Leonard Brown, made two separate offers to Litton to settle the case before trial — for $750,000 and then for $500,000. Litton made a counter-offer of $35,000, which Brown rejected.
Graber insisted he didn't sue Litton for the money.
"I'm not rich, but I have a nice house and some money," he said. "But I wanted to stop this from happening in the workplace. This cannot be tolerated in 1998."
Brown described the printing division as a small, blue-collar operation separate from Litton's main plant. He said the plant manager and his two supervisors considered it "their domain."
No one from Litton's management or affirmative-action office showed up for the court case, according to Brown. Graber's plant manager and two supervisors denied in court that they made anti-Semitic statements to him, and denied even knowing that he was Jewish.
In the face of witness testimony, Wood did admit saying Graber must have "Jewed down the price" on a watch he bought.
Graber said he complained about the anti-Semitic harassment "dozens of times over the years" to the company's human resources and affirmative-action departments, to no avail.
By 1990, when he'd worked for Litton for five years, he said he began to develop mental and physical problems. His primary-care physician suggested he see a psychologist, but he couldn't afford the co-payments, so his physician prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
In 1992, chest pain prompted doctors to put Graber on medication for hypertension, high blood pressure and ulcers.
Everything "came to a head," he said, in October 1994, when Graber was put on full disability.
Graber contacted the Anti-Defamation League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People soon after he left Litton in late 1994. He filed a formal complaint with the ADL's Los Angeles office in January 1995, but never heard back. Apparently, the ADL counsel who dealt with his complaint soon moved on to another job, and his case fell through the cracks.
Although he admitted to being "elated" by his court victory, Graber said he wouldn't feel vindicated until the three individuals who harassed him were fired.
"That would be more painful for the company than the money," he said. "It would mean admitting they did something wrong."