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Ride Them Hard--You Can't Say That!

In case you missed reports of this $450,000 "hostile environment" settlement, based on a misunderstanding, via Overlawyered:

Two secretaries will share a settlement of around $450,000 from the Atlantic City, N.J. school district and its insurer after filing sexual-harassment charges. Carol Lee and Jennifer Torres sued following a comment Assistant Superintendent Thomas J. Kirschling made to them and two others in July 2002. At some point mid-month, Kirschling said "I ride them hard and put them away wet." The two secretaries sent him a memo saying they were outraged. He later explained and apologized, according to a subsequent memo. Kirschling was apparently using a rural idiom that means someone is tired or worked hard. The phrase is taken from the need to cool down a horse after strenuous exercise. Only a mistreated horse is stabled while it is still sweating. After the women complained, the district assigned an outside attorney to investigate, but that probe inadvertently lapsed....

This reminds me of a case I wrote about in You Can't Say That!, in which a black woman won a large settlement after receiving a joke certificate designating her an "honorary coonass" (I recount the episode here.) She thought this was a racial slur, when it's actually a mildly derogatory slang word for "Cajun." The Coonass case was a bit more egregious, however, in that the complainant in that case actually won a jury verdict; the complainant's in the "Ride Them Hard" case won a settlement, apparently largely because the school district's lawyer was thought to have mishandled the investigation, and the distict was afraid this would make them look bad before a jury. (Also, the "coonass" case was decided in federal court, where it should have been easily dismissed by the judge under current hostile environment doctrine, even if it was a slur; New Jersey, in contrast, allows hostile environment complaints based on a single remark, making much more difficult to get a case dismissed.) Regardless, this might just win my vote for the most ridiculous case of the year.