Federal suit involving race proceeds against VTA

Judge dismissed ‘emotional distress’ claim, but says civil rights claims can be heard.

12
Kevin Brooks, a barber who commutes to the Island from New Bedford, alleges that a VTA bus passed him by at an Edgartown stop because of his race. – Courtesy Kevin Brooks

Calling it “preposterous” that Massachusetts antidiscrimination laws would not apply to a government entity, a federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by Kevin Brooks against the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) and Transit Connection Inc. (TCI) can proceed in federal court.

Brooks alleges that on July 11, 2018, a VTA bus driven by James Taylor passed him by at an Edgartown stop. When he confronted Taylor about why he didn’t stop, Taylor first said the bus was full. And in an exchange caught on tape, Brooks pressed Taylor, who said, “Well, it’s because you’re black.”
The Times received footage of the July 11 incident through a public records request. Taylor was fired by TCI two days later.

Brooks, a barber who commutes to the Island from New Bedford, is seeking “compensatory, consequential, treble, and punitive damages, as well as costs and attorneys’ fees,” according to court records.

Both the VTA and TCI sought to have the case dismissed by summary judgment, but in a ruling filed Jan. 2, U.S. District Court Judge William Young denied the parts of the motion that the VTA and TCI could not be sued for discrimination because they are government entities. Young did dismiss the claim by Brooks that he suffered emotional distress, because the evidence he supplied provided “insufficient facts as a matter of law to demonstrate objective evidence of harm for a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress.”

While the VTA tried to argue that the two antidiscrimination laws cited — the Public Accommodation Law and Equal Rights Act — do not apply to government entities, Young disagreed. 

“It is preposterous to construe this ‘civil right’ as enforceable against everyone but the government itself,” Young wrote. “Civil rights are, in large part, a bulwark against government power.”

TCI attempted to have several claims dismissed, stating the reason Brooks wasn’t picked up was because the bus was full. However, the judge denied that request, saying that bus capacity remains a “disputed fact” in the case.

In its motion, VTA also claimed that Taylor worked for TCI and not the VTA, but the judge denied that claim, writing that it is “genuinely disputed whether Taylor was employed by the VTA.”

The VTA operates the bus service, and contracts with TCI to employ bus drivers.

The VTA Advisory Board discussed the case in executive session at its meeting in November.

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you to the Times for supplying the video. It puts to rest several questions I had about this incident.

    “It is preposterous to construe this ‘civil right’ as enforceable against everyone but the government itself…”

    I agree. That is an incredibly disturbing thought.

  2. Cant wait to see how others comment on this!!
    After seeing the video and seeing the bus was totally full I think the subject is pulling the race card to make some coin..
    If the bus is full the driver should have had the sign on in front saying FULL to save a racist lawsuit!

      • It’s also helpful not to admit you didn’t stop because the man was black. Otherwise a lawsuit is entirely justified.

    • I don’t think the lawsuit was filed insincerely or just for money. I believe Mr. Brooks was affected by what happened. The driver may have intended his reply to come across as sarcastic. He may not have. In the end, the lawsuit is still due to his explicit use of words that confirm an illegal practice. He is responsible for what he chooses to say while working. We have laws against this because we live in a country where people of color have unquestionably been denied service or entry, time and time again. Everyone knows that. Everyone. Even many children. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would still be so obtuse as to pop off with *that* as an inflammatory comeback. I understand July is hot and miserable, that everyone is cranky, that his job may be frustrating at times. After that, I’m out of excuses. This could not have been handled worse.

      If I’m understanding correctly, Brooks claims he saw Taylor stop and pick up someone else after being left on the side of the road. The beginning of the video was taken near the Triangle. The ending was down at the boat, once they met up again. I think. What happened in between? Is there more footage? Maybe Brooks did see another passenger board during that time. I would be very interested to know if the driver picked up anyone else after claiming the bus was full. That seems like the most important factor in determining whether his actions were intentional discrimination, although there are two separate parts to this case. There’s what was done and what was said. I am up in the air on the first. As for what was said, that is not legal or appropriate.

      I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth and could easily be wrong about this, but during a part of the video that is captioned as inaudible, starting around 0:53, it sounds to me like Mr. Brooks is saying something about the driver playing “coy” and failing to pick him, or someone, up in the past? The possibility makes me wonder if there is a confirmable pattern here. Was this a one-time incident? Has this driver been unwilling to pick up this passenger, or others, up before?

      At 0:40, after Brooks initially asks the driver if there was a reason he didn’t stop, Taylor replies with “I don’t know”. Sounded snide to me.

      That’s your first response? You don’t know? If it’s because the bus was full, why not just say so immediately, attempt to reassure the customer?When someone has to ask more than once just to get what should’ve been a very simple reply, of course he is going to think that’s evasive or that the other person may have bad intentions. If I have an innocent explanation and someone is upset, I’m going to try and de-escalate things. Especially in a professional capacity.

      As for the courts dismissing the emotional distress aspect of his claim based on insufficient evidence, that seems premature. Whether the bus was full is still being disputed. Whether Taylor picked up a passenger after Brooks was denied is, I assume, still being disputed. The answer to those questions should reasonably determine whether this was an intentional case of discrimination. If it was, then a claim of emotional distress is fitting. Even if it wasn’t, there is still the words spoken to consider. This deserves to be heard fully in court.

    • Race card? No one said anything about race until the driver said “well it’s because you’re black.”

      If the bus was full the VTA with have video and receipt evidence to back up that claim. The judge says the fact that the bus was full is in dispute. Mr. Brooks also claims that he witness the bus pick up passengers after he was passed, the video evidence would also support or disprove this claim.

      • That’s a great point, EdwardMVY. The driver explicitly dragged race into the conversation, and yet we still have to hear about the mythical race card.

  3. I think two things are likely true at the same time here.

    First I don’t think the driver was really trying to be hateful, or the comment came from some deep seeded racism. I think he was being a wise ass and was trying to make a joke.

    Perhaps it was an ill-advised attempt To bring levity to a tense situation.

    But at the same time the driver should know better than to make such an inflammatory statement — especially in front of a bus load of people.

    Honestly someone working in the capacity of a bus driver should know better.

    Accordingly I agree the driver should have been removed from his job.

    With that said a part of me thinks it’s unfortunate that this drivers name and video of this incident has been published, thereby painting him as a bigot in many peoples eyes.

    Clearly someone, likely Mr. Brooks, tipped off the newspapers about what happened. And since we as a society are currently hyper focused on race (perhaps to an unhealthy degree) and since this involved an employee paid by taxpayer dollars, then it sill automatically became a big news story.

    To boil it down, the driver should have thought before he spoke. And because he didn’t he lost his job and his reputation is effectively ruined.

    Does the punishment fit the crime? Should one off the cuff attempt at humor ruin a mans life and cost taxpayers in the form of a settlement? Hard to say but that’s the reality of the world we live in right now, like it or not.

    • Jimmyballgame9, I can understand some of your points but disagree that it was an attempt at humor or levity. Those things are meant to de-escalate and done in a friendlier manner. He went the other way and fanned the flames. The comment may have been sarcastic rather than literal, but if it was, it’s the nasty kind of sarcasm. The kind meant to dig at the person you’re talking to. I think the driver assumed Mr. Brooks was approaching him with concerns over this being racially motivated, and so he decided to call that out in the worst possible way. If he really thinks a black person in that situation is going to be amused or reassured by having his race thrown in his face…

  4. Well, there is video of what happened between the time the driver did not stop for Mr. Brooks and the incident in Vineyard Have. Mr. Brooks claims that he saw the driver pick up other people. That may very well be true, but Did the driver let people off at say the bend in the road ? one would think it possible some passengers got off there or at other stops , before Mr. Brooks could get an uber or whatever alternative means of transportation he got to catch up to the bus.
    So this is a key point. The bus looks full to me at the time.. If in fact the driver let other passengers on without letting some off, then we have a clear case of discrimination. Not letting a black man get on a public bus because he is black is grounds for a federal case. Not letting him on because the bus is full, is VTA policy , for justifiable safety reasons.
    If that is the case, then we have a case of a driver saying something stupid and hurtful, and he was rightly fired. Not good, but not grounds to make a federal case about it..
    Can the Times show us the rest of the story ?

  5. Brooks says in the video that he watched another passenger board the bus after him. If this is true there would be video. Why did the Times edit the 35 minutes of video they received and not include this proof if it exists? This could prove that at least one party was not telling the truth. The bus did in fact look full as it passed Brooks. Show the full video without editing. Report the facts and not your agenda.

  6. The VTA has been in a downward spiral for a long time. Leaving people behind was never questioned until that person was black and it was caught on tape. Not all drivers are bad if course but the VTA has operated with impunity for so long we’ve become blind to it…UNTIL NOW!

Comments are closed.