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To make a prima facie case of discrimination in a place of public accommodation, the complainant must prove the following elements: (a) that the complainant is a member of a protected class; (b) that the complainant attempted to avail himself of the accommodations, advantages, privileges or services of a place of public accommodation; and (c) that the accommodations, advantages, privileges or services were withheld, denied or refused to the complainant.
Mr. Taylor and Mr. Turner are African American men who were employees of Price Gregory International, Inc. ("Price Gregory") when the relevant events in this matter occurred. Mr. Taylor lives in California. Mr. Turner lives in Mississippi. Both men came to West Virginia to work as "pipeliners" at a gas production site operated by Price Gregory. The instant matter arises out of their attempt to seek long-term apartment rooms at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia. Respondents filed their complaint against the McClure Hotel and an employee of the hotel, Petitioner Adams, alleging that their "actions in refusing, and/or withholding from [Respondents] the accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services of their place of public accommodation constitutes unlawful discriminatory practices under West Virginia Code [§] 5-11-9(6)(A)."
During the jury trial, Mr. Taylor testified to the alleged discriminatory acts of Petitioner Adams. The first one was when he found out that he was assigned to West Virginia, he called the McClure Hotel and asked if they had long-term apartment rooms available. Petitioner Adams was the hotel employee who answered this call. Mr. Taylor testified that she told him that long-term apartment rooms were available. However, after arriving at the McClure Hotel in person and speaking with Petitioner Adams, Mr. Taylor stated that Petitioner Adams told him that there was a "waiting list" for the long-term apartment rooms, but he could stay in a "nightly room," which the hotel referred to as a "sleeper room." The "sleeper rooms" are more expensive on a nightly basis than the long-term apartment rooms. Mr. Taylor testified that he observed white coworkers who were hired after him, and who arrived at the hotel after him, being provided with long-term apartment rooms while he remained in a "sleeper room." Mr. Taylor approached Petitioner Adams and asked why these coworkers who were hired after him, and arrived at the hotel after him, were being provided with long-term apartment rooms when she had informed him that none were available. According to Mr. Taylor, Petitioner Adams told him that these coworkers were ahead of him on the "waiting list." Mr. Taylor testified that this could not have been the case because the coworkers had not yet been hired by Price Gregory when he arrived at the hotel. However, when Mr. Taylor talked to the general manager, he was informed that the hotel does not have a “waiting list.” Shortly after his conversation with the hotel's general manager, Mr. Taylor was provided with a long-term apartment room after two weeks of staying in the hotel. The second one was an interaction he had with Petitioner Adams regarding his hotel bill. Mr. Taylor acknowledged that, on one occasion, he paid the monthly apartment rent three days beyond the five-day grace period provided for in the apartment rental agreement; however, the hotel's policy provided that eviction would not occur unless a rental payment was ten days late. On the day he made this rental payment, December 8, 2011, he paid in cash and stated that the hotel made a photocopy of the money he handed them. Further, Petitioner Adams called him to inform him that, although he had paid his rent, he had a parking fee that remained outstanding. Mr. Taylor explained to her that he intended to "go to the bank and . . . take care of it" after work. According to Mr. Taylor, Petitioner Adams responded, "I've had nothing but problems from you people." Mr. Taylor asked Petitioner Adams what she meant by "you people”, but she did not respond. Later that day, Mr. Taylor discovered that Petitioner Adams had called Price Gregory and spoken to his office manager. Mr. Taylor asked Petitioner Adams whether she made disparaging remarks about him to his office manager, but Petitioner Adams "didn't have any response to that. She just sat there and looked at [me]." Petitioner Adams's phone call to Mr. Taylor's office manager also required Mr. Taylor to explain the situation at the hotel to his "spread boss." According to Mr. Taylor, he felt humiliation when discussing the hotel situation with his spread boss: "When [my spread boss] pulled me aside it was more embarrassing than anything else because of the simple fact that, you know, you're making me look bad, type thing, like I brought you to the job, how are you getting people calling here because you're not paying your bills." Mr. Taylor testified that after completing this particular job, he did not work for Price Gregory again.
Mr. Turner also testified during Respondents' case-in-chief. He stated that, like Mr. Taylor, he was one of the first Price Gregory employees to arrive on the jobsite. Upon arriving at the McClure Hotel on October 26, 2011, Petitioner Adams informed him that there were no long-term apartment rooms available, but that he would be at the top of the "waiting list." Like Mr. Taylor, Mr. Turner was given a "sleeper room" and testified that "I agreed to pay the regular stay per night [for the 'sleeper room'], which is a higher rate, because I had nowhere else to go. So I just paid the regular rate until an apartment became available." Though he was one of the first Price Gregory employees to arrive, Mr. Turner testified that he observed white coworkers getting long-term apartment rooms before he did. It took approximately one month from the time he arrived at the hotel until he was provided with a long-term apartment room. When asked if he expressed his complaint about other employees getting long-term apartment rooms before he did to the Petitioners, Mr. Turner replied in the affirmative, and testified that Petitioner Adams got frustrated at him and asked him questions about him being a drug dealer, among others accusations. Additionally, Mr. Turner stated that he understood that when Petitioner Adams called Price Gregory to complain about Mr. Taylor's late parking fee, Petitioner Adams also complained about Mr. Turner, despite the fact that he did not owe any outstanding fees to the hotel. After finding out about this telephone call, Mr. Turner talked to Petitioner Adams about the accusation. In reply, she allegedly said, "'[y]ou guys are obnoxious' - you guys — 'you people, you're obnoxious,' you know, 'I want you all out of here.’”
The case was submitted to the jury, and it found Petitioners liable under the WVHRA. The jury awarded each Respondent $475,000.00. Petitioners moved for judgment as a new trial or, alternatively, for a new trial, but the motion was denied.
Did the Respondents fail to present evidence uring the trial that Petitioners withheld, denied or refused any accommodations, advantages, privileges or services of the hotel?
Viewing the evidence adduced at trial in a light most favorable to Respondents, they sufficiently offered considerable evidence of the denial, refusal, and withholding of the long-term apartment rooms through the following: 1) Mr. Taylor's testimony that he called the hotel, asked about long-term apartment rooms and was told these rooms were available; 2) upon appearing in person at the hotel, Mr. Taylor was told that the long-term apartment rooms were not available and that he would be placed on a "waiting list;" 3) the hotel did not have a "waiting list;" 4) Mr. Taylor and Mr. Turner testified that they both observed white coworkers, later-hired, and later-arriving, being provided with long-term apartment rooms ahead of them; 5) after observing these coworkers being provided with long-term apartment rooms ahead of them, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Turner testified that they asked Petitioner Adams why this occurred, and she again referred them to the non-existent "waiting list;" 6) Mr. Taylor and Mr. Turner brought their complaint to the hotel's general manager who told them that the hotel did not have a "waiting list," and referred them back to Petitioner Adams; and 7) Mr. Taylor and Mr. Turner testified that they were provided with long-term apartment rooms shortly after complaining to the hotel's general manager. Based on the foregoing, it is clear that Respondents presented ample evidence from which the jury could have concluded that they were denied long-term apartment rooms for a period of their stay on the basis of their race.
Further, Petitioners' contention that Respondents failed to establish a prima facie claim under the WVHRA because they were provided with "sleeper rooms" upon arrival, and eventually provided with long-term apartment rooms was wrong. Petitioners argue that because there was not a total withholding of accommodations, Respondents did not establish a prima facie claim. This narrow, restrictive interpretation of the WVHRA is not supported by the statute's plain language, purpose, or caselaw from this Court. The statutory provision at issue, W. Va. Code § 5-11-9(6)(A), is written broadly, and provides that it is an unlawful discriminatory practice to "[r]efuse, withhold from or deny to any individual because of his or her race, . . . either directly or indirectly, any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services of the place of public accommodations[.]" This statutory language does not restrict unlawful discriminatory practices to only those situations in which there has been a complete withholding of accommodations. Further, one purpose of the WVHRA is to "eliminate all discrimination in . . . places of public accommodations by virtue of race." Finally, in Charleston Acad. of Beauty Culture, Inc. v. W. Va. Human Rights Comm’n, this Court found no error in the circuit court's rejection of the "contention that there is no violation of the [WVHRA] unless there is a complete withholding of privileges or services."