Los Angeles Daily Journal - 1/8/04 - Black Workers Sue Home Depot For Race Bias

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Black Workers Sue Home Depot for Race Bias

By Joy C. Shaw
Daily Journal Staff Writer

Two African-American workers have filed racial discrimination lawsuits claiming a supervisor at Home Depot’s Woodland Hills store stood by and laughed as white employees dressed in Ku Klux Klan hoods harassed them in April.

Toni Jaramilla, a Los Angeles attorney representing plaintiff Troy Crisp, said what happened to her client is “just an example of the hostile and racists culture that Home Depot has cultivated in its place of business.

African American employees had been called “gorilla”, “black monkey” and even “nappy head” at Home Depot even before the April incident, Jaramilla said.

Crisp and his co-plaintiff, Kamau Barr, filed lawsuits separately at the Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday, demanding that Home Depot create an “effective policy to prevent discrimination and harassment” and seeking unspecified damages. Crisp v. Home Depot BC308777 (L.A. Super Ct. filed Jan 6, 2004; Barr v. Home Depot BC308752 (L.A. Super Ct., filed Jan 6, 2004).

In addition to the home improvement giant, the suit names employees Brian Lemas and Jim Nebrowski and supervisor John Eun as defendants. Lemas, Nebrowski and Eun could not be reached.

Home Depot counsel referred all questions to company spokesman Jerry Shields, who said the two employees accused of wearing hoods were fired immediately after the harassment incident.

Shields said the lawsuit’s contentions against the company are groundless. “The Home Depot has a zero-tolerance policy for any form of discrimination and believes these accusations are without any merit,” he said in a statement.

Home Depot spokeswoman Katherine Gallagher said the company instructed all employees, including Eun, not to speak to the press.

Crisp and Barr said they were working the night shift on April 17, after the store had closed, when two men wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes approached them.

The hooded men leapt out at the plaintiffs, waving their arms and yelling, they said.

As Barr and Crisp watched in shock, the two hooded men ran to the back of the store, took off the costume and revealed themselves as co-workers Lemas and Nebrowski.

Even more shocking, Barr and Crisp said, Eun laughed with the hooded men and instructed them to hide the Klan hoods.

Their lawsuit claimed Eun knew about and assisted in the racist attacks.

“Once I discovered the supervisor was part of it, that increased my fear level,” Barr said after a news conference in Pasadena Tuesday.

Barr and Crisp said they were the only two African-American employees on the work floor at the time. And they believe their safety, as well as their families’, has been jeopardized.

“It’s a shocking thing for me, not something that I expected to see, especially not in California,” Barr said.

Jaramilla said her client is suing Home Depot, along with the workers and the supervisor; because the company has been condoning a hostile workplace and “refused to take any step,” such as starting tolerance training, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“You’d expect Home Depot, as big as it is, would have a program in place,” Jaramilla said. “But they failed.”

Home Depot, headquartered in Atlanta, is the second-largest retailer in the country with 1,500 stores in North America.

Although Lemas and Nebrowski were fired soon after the April 17 incident, Eun was not, the plaintiffs’ attorney said.

“Despite their complaints, Mr. Barr and Mr. Crisp were forced to work under direct supervision of the supervisor who participated in the incidents,” said Dan Stormer, co-counsel for Barr.

Also, hangman’s nooses began to appear in various locations in the Woodland Hills store in the weeks following the incident.

Employment lawyers said Home Depot’s liability will turn on whether Eun indeed actively participated in the harassment.

“It’s the classic racial discrimination case,” said Paul Sweeney Jr., attorney at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart in Los Angeles. “California employers are not allowed to discriminate in the workplace. If they do, they can be liable.