Posted on May 30, 2023

She Said Equinox Fired Her for Being a Black Woman. A Jury Agreed.

Gina Bellafante, New York Times, May 26, 2023

Between 2018 and 2019, Röbynn Europe, a former professional body builder, worked at an Equinox on the Upper East Side, where she managed personal trainers. Years earlier, as a scholarship student at Brearley, the girls’ school several blocks away, where she began in seventh grade, commuting first from Canarsie and then Coney Island, she had experienced the coded bias of privileged teenagers. There was only one other Black student in her class. But still that had not prepared her for what she described as crass, unfiltered expressions of prejudice from male colleagues in an expensive gym, awash with the scent of eucalyptus oil if not the base notes of enlightenment.

Ms. Europe’s tenure at the club was short-lived; Equinox terminated her employment in less than a year because, the company said, she was late 47 times in the course of 10 months. Ms. Europe held a different view of her firing, believing that her lateness was merely a pretext for discrimination, and soon after she filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court, arguing that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment and eventually let go because of her race and gender. Last week, a predominantly white jury of five women and three men agreed, delivering a verdict in little over an hour. The next day they awarded her $11.25 million in damages.

The swiftness of the jury’s decision and the size of the payout — $10 million in punitive damages and $1.25 million for the distress she suffered — follow a pattern similar to the verdict reached in the same courthouse just a few weeks before, in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against Donald J. Trump. In both instances, the process and outcome suggest the ways in which recent transformative social movements around race and gender might reframe the way that juries think about the long shadow of emotional disruption that bigotry or sexual violence can produce.

Ms. Europe, who had been an art student at Oberlin College, was an unlikely entry into the fitness world. Returning to New York after graduation, she took an office job at the David Barton Gym, where she worked to support herself through a tattooing apprenticeship. In 2006, she received her certification as a personal trainer. “Racism and sexism — they are just pervasive in the fitness industry,” she said when I met her {snip}

“In coastal cities, training is something you can do without a degree and you can make $75 an hour — there are not a lot of opportunities to do that, so it’s a big draw for people of color.” But the management structure, she observed, is often white and male.

In response to the verdict, Equinox did not engage in the current fashion for self-reproach and vows to do better. Instead, it issued a statement saying that it “vehemently disagreed” with the finding and did not “tolerate discrimination in any form.” In the motion it filed asking the court to reconsider the case, either by way of a new trial or a reduction in the award, lawyers maintained that the jurors, “guided by sympathy and emotion,” had “erroneously” bought into the plaintiff’s claim that she had been the victim of racial animus and “issued extreme, unconscionable damages” as a result.

The case revolved in large part around allegations that a manager who reported to Ms. Europe, a middle-aged white man whom she described as insulated by his relationships with people above her, refused to accept her as his supervisor. She claimed that he repeatedly delivered his vulgar takes on Black female bodies, referred to nonwhite employees as “lazy” and expressed the hope that he could get them fired {snip}