June 8 (Reuters) - A shoe store clerk who was fired after
inadvertently giving a receipt containing a racial slur to a
black customer has the right to sue her former employer for
defamation, a federal appeals court ruled.
Friday's decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
in Kansas City, Missouri, revived part of a lawsuit by Jessica
Cockram against Genesco Inc, owner of the Journeys store in
Overland Park, Kansas, where she had worked.
The case arose from an Oct. 17, 2008, incident in which
Cockram, who according to her lawyer is now 22, had entered a
generic "555-5555" phone number into her cash register to speed
up the customer's return of a pair of shoes.
She had not known that a former employee had programmed the
store's database to associate that phone number with the slur
and with a faked customer address that made references to "white
power" and Adolf Hitler. Cockram signed the receipt without
noticing the slur and gave the receipt to the customer.
After the case drew media attention, Genesco fired Cockram
and issued a statement that it was "shocked and sickened" at
what happened. It later clarified that statement after learning
that another employee may have been involved, and said
"inappropriate references were entered by employees" into the
Though Cockram was not named in Genesco's statements, she
said they defamed her and invaded her privacy. She also said
that after the first statement, she received threats and was
forced to move and temporarily put her daughter in her parents'
A federal judge dismissed her lawsuit in April 2011. But the
three-judge appeals court panel said Genesco's statements
carried a "sting" that could lead people to believe that Cockram
intentionally used the slur and was among those responsible for
the database entries.
"A reasonable jury could conclude that Genesco's statements
were false, (and) that they harmed Cockram's reputation," Judge
Raymond Gruender wrote for the panel.
Claire McCall, a Genesco spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Daniel Curry, a lawyer for Cockram, said: "Our client is
pleased that she will have a chance to clear her name in court."
Curry said his client now lives in Michigan.
Genesco is based in Nashville, Tennessee. It operates close
to 2,400 stores, including Journeys, Lids and Johnston & Murphy
The case is Cockram v. Genesco Inc, 8th U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals, No. 11-2027.
For Cockram: Daniel Curry of Randles, Mata & Brown.
For Genesco: William Brandt of Bryan Cave.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel)
Follow us on Twitter @ReutersLegal | Like us on Facebook