Walgreens Discrimination Suit Appealed in Nevada

By | March 24, 2009

Two years after Bruce Johnson lost a racial discrimination suit against Walgreens Co., the Houston resident says he has some unfinished business with the drug store chain that he claims owes him more than an apology for the insulting treatment he and three friends received at a photo counter.

In the management liability case, Johnson not only is eager to overturn the ruling that left him owing $253,926 in court costs and attorney fees, he wants to right the wrong he claims was committed against the four black men in 2003.

Now he thinks he has the evidence he needs to convince a jury that a witness for Walgreens lied when he said a clerk did not shout a racial slur at the men who had complained about the poor quality of photographs they received after having their film processed at a downtown Reno store.

“It’s not about money anymore. It’s about justice. It’s about telling the truth,” Johnson, 46, said in a recent telephone interview from his home.

In court documents, Johnson and co-plaintiff Mark Mills said they learned over the past year that the then-manager of the store, Jeffrey Pinto, was “under investigation for fraud and embezzlement” at the time he testified for Walgreens against the four men. Pinto was fired about 10 days after the trial, Johnson said.

Johnson claims Walgreens improperly withheld that information from the judge and jury. In recent motions filed after an August appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, he charges that Pinto may have slanted his testimony to appease corporate officials and try to save his job.

Johnson’s appeal says Walgreens never brought any criminal charges against Pinto, but that Pinto was aware of the company’s internal investigation.

“If the jury had heard Mr. Pinto was going to be fired the next week, it definitely would have changed things,” Johnson said.

Walgreens officials have declined to comment on when Pinto left the job or why he no longer works at the Reno store. They say it is not relevant to Johnson’s case.

Walgreens said in court documents that the appeal is “utterly devoid of merit.”

“We are not going to provide any information on Jeff Pinto because of the ongoing litigation,” Michael Polzin, a spokesman for the Deerfield, Ill.-based company, told AP.

“The plaintiffs have been given every opportunity and more to present their case. They lost the trial before a jury,” he said.

“After getting a pretty large judgment for fees and costs against them, they decided to appeal. And now they are making these other allegations against someone who has nothing to do with their claims so we are not going to respond to those other allegations,” he said.

The Associated Press has been unable to locate Pinto. The telephone at a listing for him in the Reno area has been disconnected.

In the original lawsuit seeking $2.5 million, the four men — two of whom have since died — claimed that the photo lab clerk shouted a racial slur, slammed a door and denied them service after they complained about the photos.

Pinto and Walgreens’ lawyers acknowledged the clerk slammed a door and walked off the job but denied the clerk uttered the n-word. Walgreens argued the incident was a case of poor customer service, but not an example of racial bias.

The jury agreed in an unanimous verdict that capped a dramatic seven-day trial during which the judge repeatedly admonished both legal teams. At one point Johnson was taken from the courthouse by ambulance when he suffered an asthma attack after aggressive cross-examination.

Johnson said he’s challenging the $253,926 he has been ordered to pay in lawyer fees and court costs because his appeal alleges Pinto was forced to reimburse Walgreens for some of the money it spent to defend the company and company employees, including Pinto.

Johnson said that means the amount of money he owes the company should be reduced.

Johnson, a gospel singer, said pursuit of justice in the case
became his calling and he launched a Web site,
stopalldiscrimination.com, to help others facing a similar plight.
He maintains the stress of the saga helped contribute to the death
of his friends.

“After more than six years and enduring the untimely deaths of two dear friends and co-plaintiffs, Cadarell Freeman and Michael Price, we vowed to one another to never give up or give in to Walgreens. … and never stop fighting for justice and due process,” he said.

A ruling on the appeal is expected in coming months.

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