Looking for a Righteous Cause
Larry Organ helped win the country’s highest-ever award for racial discrimination
Published in 2022 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
By Scott Pruden on July 5, 2022
DeWitt Lambert grew up in Alabama against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, so he knows what overt racism can look like. Even so, he says he never heard the N-word directed at him in the workplace until he began working at the Fremont assembly plant for Tesla in 2015.
There, Lambert says he faced a constant onslaught of racist treatment. He alleged that coworkers flashed gang signs, called him the N-word, and, in mind-boggling acts of self-incrimination, recorded racist videos on his cell phone that included 22 uses of the N-word and threats to cut him up and deliver his body parts to his family.
Management ignored Lambert’s complaints, says Larry Organ, the founder of the California Civil Rights Law Group, to whom Lambert reached out in 2016. In some cases, he adds, his complaints resulted in further harassment.
“My neighbor had a Tesla and raved about it, and I was always impressed with what the company was doing for sustainability,” Organ says. “Prior to DeWitt Lambert coming to me, I’d always said if I ever get the cash, ‘Man, I’m going to get a Tesla.’”
Not anymore. After hearing Lambert’s “unreal” story, Organ, whose been working civil rights cases for decades, reached out to Tesla. Their response was tepid at best, Organ says.
“Initially, Tesla was apologetic, but they really weren’t,” he says. “They offered to resolve the case for a very nominal number, but they included that, ‘Hey! DeWitt would get to shake Elon Musk’s hand!’ As if that’s worth a million dollars or something.”
Organ says he was armed by his parents with a sense of compassion and fairness. “The idea that we’re all created equal, and a sense of responsibility that if things are not equal, then it’s something worth fighting for to try and help the underdog to overcome the inequities in our society,” he says.
Those lessons held fast as Organ progressed through the early years of his law career. The bureaucracy of government work in his first law job turned him off, and eventually he found his way to a civil rights firm. “And I never looked back. I’ve always been fighting for this and having a deeper sense of purpose and looking for a righteous cause. That’s something most lawyers don’t get the opportunity to do,” he says. “I feel very grateful that I’ve lucked into this.”
Organ declined Tesla’s original offer in the Lambert case. However, the publicity that accompanied the complaint prompted others to come forward. One was Tesla contractor Owen Diaz, who contacted Organ not to file his own case, but to offer testimony about his own experiences with racism at the Fremont plant that he thought might help Lambert.
Except Organ realized quickly that Diaz not only had his own case, but he also had a significant advantage: where Lambert’s full-time employment agreement with Tesla included an arbitration clause, Diaz was a contractor and signed no such agreement. In October 2017, Organ sued Tesla on Diaz’s behalf.
“The press just went crazy,” Organ says. And from there, more stories began to emerge. So many, in fact, that Organ filed a class action suit on behalf of 1,000 Black Tesla employees while still pursuing the individual cases for Lambert and Diaz.
By 2019, the Lambert case went to arbitration. The Diaz case, in which Tesla never offered a settlement and argued that as a contractor Diaz never actually worked for the company, moved from state to federal court. Meanwhile, the class-action suit was proceeding in state court.
In an initial defeat, the arbitrator in the Lambert case ruled in favor of Tesla, resulting in Organ’s firm losing $1 million in attorney fees and another $100,000 in costs. But a victory quickly followed in 2021. An arbitrator found in favor of Tesla employee Melvin Berry—a client Organ picked up from the publicity of the Lambert and Diaz cases—noting that Berry’s testimony reflecting on a pattern of racist conduct at the plant was more credible than Tesla’s denials of such behavior.
Then, in September of that same year, the Diaz case went to federal court. Organ, with co-counsel Bernard Alexander, argued their case in 12 hours.
“Probably in some ways that was beneficial because it really made us laser focus on the case of the harassing conduct,” Organ says. “We got three witnesses who testified that they heard the N-word on pretty much a daily basis, and that they heard it all over the factory.”
Documents showed that Diaz had notified his supervisor verbally as many as seven times about racist language and had complained twice in writing about physical threats and racist drawings. The statements went to Tesla HR, but the company, however, took no action.
But the jury did. Diaz received $136.9 million, the nation’s largest award for a racial discrimination case.
Three days after the Diaz verdict, Tesla announced it was relocating its corporate offices to Texas. In February, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a civil case against Tesla, citing its multiple California facilities.
“I feel privileged to have done this case,” Organ says. “As a civil rights lawyer, you’re always hoping to get a case that could impact other people’s behavior, other company’s behavior, with a result that tells them that this conduct is not only unacceptable but it will cost you.”
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