Broward County Commissioners voted last week to budget funds for recovering a judgement of almost US$200,000 against a Ft Lauderdale yacht firm over a racial discrimination case. But the owner of Luxury Yacht Group said his firm has been unfairly targeted by the county, without taking into full account the facts of the seven-year-old case.

Diane Melton, who had applied for an administrative position with Luxury Yacht Group in 2005, sued the company shortly after she received an email from a company employee, saying she was “black and overweight” and that it could possibly harm business. The email from Marcy Laturno was mistakenly sent to Melton. Laturno had intended to send it to another employee who had interviewed and recommended Melton for the position.

Melton filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Luxury Yacht Group, and two years ago in a separate action, the Broward County Human Rights Board ordered Luxury Yacht Group to pay Melton US$44,965 in damages and about US$150,000 in attorney’s fees. The County Commissioners decided last week to back up its Human Rights Board by saying it would sue the yacht firm if it did not comply with the order.

But Rupert Connor, owner of Luxury Yacht Group, told IBI there are many facts to the case that run counter to the sensational headlines. He has appealed the county’s order for payment to a Florida state circuit court.

“Was it a dumb brain-fart of an email?” says Connor. “Yes it was. But there was nothing discriminatory within that email, according to the law. The person writing it didn’t have true hiring authority and they also had to prove Melton was qualified for the job — which she wasn’t."

Connor says Laturno, who is now working for a separate yacht business of his in Antibes, France, had “no malicious intent” in sending the email. “If there were, she wouldn’t be working for me,” he said. “We have a good history of placing racially diverse crew on the yachts we serve, and at the time, about a third of our staff were minorities. Another black applicant was eventually offered the position.”

Connor said he interviewed Melton himself after the email went out, and found her "unfit" for the position. “She had no yachting experience and kind of just sat there during the interview,” he said. “I believe she had already consulted with an attorney before I interviewed her.”

Carole Ann Hamer, a former executive assistant to Connor, was the person who originally interviewed Melton and recommended her for the job. She said so in an email to Laturno, who would have been Melton's boss. "I do think she would do a good job. However, I am not sure she portrays the image we are looking for here,” Laturno replied, thinking she was emailing Hamer. “… I am also a bit worried abut [sic] the discrimination issues the boats have. … As she is black and overweight, these are two issue boats do not employ for. … [T]he majority not being US flagged they can discriminate.'' She ended the email with: "I think employing her may directly affect our business and is something seriously worth considering. Please delete this e-mail after you read it. Thank you!"

Connor said that local television broadcast the email seven years ago in truncated form on a news story, making it appear more inflammatory than it was. “We lost business because of it, and we’re still fighting it seven years later,” he says. “It’s like Chinese water torture for a small business.”

Hamer began looking for a new job "right away,'' she told the Ft Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and left the company. She also testified for Melton's side.

But Connor said that the Human Rights Board, considered a “quasi-legal” body in Broward County, deliberately neglected to include much of the evidence, including his staff being 30 per cent minority, and a statement from the black woman who was offered the position that Melton applied for. “Both of these documents were also supported by verbal testimony which was not questioned or refuted,” says Connor. “We also invited the County to stop by our business to see what we are all about, that we’re a multi-cultural firm, but nobody ever came.”

Instead, Connor said, the Human Rights Board focused on the single phrase in the email. He thinks there might be some form of collusion between members of the Human Rights Board and Melton’s attorney’s firm. “Two of the panelists at the hearing vocalized conclusions about the case that weren’t even presented into evidence at the hearing,” he says. “My attorney was blown away after the decision was announced.”

Connor has no idea how long both Melton's federal case and his circuit court appeal will drag on. “If we ever get in front of a sensible court, it will be thrown out," he says.