Fire Department Discrimination Against African American Non-Firefighter Employees

Fire Department Discrimination Against African American Non-Firefighter Employees by James Vagnini{Read in 2:30 minutes} The New York City Fire Department is filled with extremely brave men and women, some out in the field and many behind the scenes. While there is certainly a long and illustrious history of dedication and incredible courage, unfortunately over the years there have also been repeated allegations of racial discrimination. As recently as 2014, the city agreed to pay $98 million to settle what is known as the “Vulcan” case to address allegations of racial bias against New York City Firefighters.  Now, in a federal lawsuit, our firm, Valli Kane & Vagnini LLP and Washington D.C. based Mehri & Skalet filed on behalf of civilian workers of the FDNY and a federal judge ruled that the case can move forward.Continue reading

$4M Settlement Awarded in Sara Lee Discrimination Case

Federal attorneys with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission today announced a $4 million settlement for former workers at the now closed Sara Lee factory in Paris.
The settlement is said to be the largest in the history of the EEOC in Dallas involving a hostile work environment.
This past Febuary, the EEOC released its findings, the results of a two year investigation into complaints.
It found violations of civil rights, that black employees suffered intimidation, racial taunts such as being called the ‘N’ word,  and graffiti, and were steered into hazardous areas of the plant, exposing them to toxic materials.
More than two dozen workers from the now-shut down baking factory are part of the federal lawsuit.
Sara Lee, now a  subsidiary of Tyson, sent CBS11 a statement saying in part they’re “committed to treating team members with dignatiy and respect and have a policy against harassment and discrimination.”
While the company says it doesn’t agree with all of the allegations in this case, it believes it makes sense to resolve this matter.
– Originally published in CBS DFW
Read original article from CBS DFW

The EEOC and Sara Lee: A Landmark Discrimination Case in Texas

After a two year investigation into complaints of civil rights and health violations, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a $4 million settlement for former employees at the Sara Lee factory located in Paris, Texas. This case marks the largest settlement in EEOC history involving a hostile work environment. The EEOC took on the case after twenty-five workers filed complaints against the company during their time at the now-shuttered factory, which closed in 2011. Attorneys now estimate that over seventy employees stand to benefit from the settlement. In addition to financial reparations, the company will be required to implement measures to prevent workplace discrimination and to submit regular reports to the EEOC. Read on for a look inside the landmark case.


The EEOC’s two year investigation found that black employees were targets of intimidation and were denied promotions that went to their white peers. Black employees reported racial slurs and graffiti during their time at the factory, incidents which were corroborated by the EEOC. A lawsuit filed separately from the EEOC complaint revealed that the graffiti included racial slurs, threats, and crude drawings of apes and black men with nooses. A large portion of the alleged abuse came from white supervisors within the factory and several Sara Lee officials have been accused of ignoring complaints from black employees about the conditions within the factory. In addition, workers were reportedly exposed to black mold asbestos and other toxins during their daily work. The working conditions were so hazardous that:

One of the cake lines was nicknamed the ‘cancer line,’ because so many people were getting sick, said Sara Kane, one of the workers’ attorneys, of the law office Valli, Kane & Vagnini.

According to the investigation, black employees were exposed to these conditions while their white colleagues were promoted to positions located in safer areas of the factory. These white employees were allegedly often less-experienced than their black co-workers but they received promotions nevertheless.
According to the EEOC’s report, several black employees contracted cancer and other diseases as a direct result to their exposure to toxins in the workplace. When black employees reported their diseases to management, their complaints were either ignored or dismissed as being unrelated to working conditions within the factory. The closure of the factory in 2011 meant that the EEOC had relatively limited exposure to the physical conditions of the factory, so the investigation did rely heavily on interviews with employees.


The EEOC enforces federal laws against discrimination in most companies with 15 employees or more (although this can vary according to certain jurisdictions and circumstances). The EEOC processes both private sector and federal sector violations of discrimination laws, although it takes a more active investigative role in private sector cases. There are two distinct private sector and a federal sector mediation programs, which each offer dispute resolution with EEOC cooperation. If conciliation cannot resolve a private sector dispute, the EEOC has the right to pursue litigation and also has a right to participate in an ongoing lawsuit. According to the EEOC website,

The EEOC has the authority to investigate charges of discrimination against employers who are covered by the law. Our role in an investigation is to fairly and accurately assess the allegations in the charge and then make a finding. If we find that discrimination has occurred, we will try to settle the charge. If we aren’t successful, we have the authority to file a lawsuit to protect the rights of individuals and the interests of the public. We do not, however, file lawsuits in all cases where we find discrimination.

The EEOC may handle tens of thousands of complaints every year, but they very rarely escalate to the heights that the Sara Lee case has, which makes the future of Sara Lee critically important. If Sara Lee complies with the EEOC regulations and actively changes its workplace environment in the coming years, it will serve as a model for other companies that have had large-scale reports of discrimination. The successful transformation of the Sara Lee case will lie with its parent company–Tyson Foods.


In 2012, so chronologically after the alleged abuse occurred, Sara Lee went through a major re-branding, effectively splitting the business in two. The food side of the business was labeled Hillshire Brands while the tea and coffee end of the company (centered in Europe) was named D.E. Master Blenders 1753. The name change was speculated to have been prompted by lackluster sales of meat products.
In 2014, Hillshire Brands completed a merger with Tyson Foods, Inc. which The Wall Street Journal referred to as the “meat industry’s biggest deal.” After the merger, Hillshire’s chief executive Sean Connolly stepped down, clearing the way for new leadership. However, the Sara Lee discrimination case did not disappear with the name change. Although headlines associate the case with Sara Lee, Tyson is now liable for the settlement and for rebuilding the brand’s image in the wake of the EEOC investigation. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Tyson Foods spokesperson Worth Sparkman said the company is

‘Committed to treating our team members with dignity and respect and have a policy against harassment and discrimination,’ noting Tyson Foods requires annual training and offers a toll-free help line for workers to report any concerns without fear of retaliation. ‘While we don’t agree with all of the allegations in this case, we oppose any unlawful discrimination in the workplace and believe it makes sense to resolve this matter,’ Sparkman wrote in an email. When asked which allegations the company disagrees with Sparkman said, via email, ‘We’ll point out that any alleged conduct in this case occurred before portions of Sara Lee were acquired by Tyson Foods in 2014.’

The Tyson brand has also had a series of legal skirmishes over working conditions over the past few years. This November, the Supreme Court heard a case against Tyson in which employees argued that Tyson unlawfully failed to pay for the time it took them to put on and then remove safety equipment during their daily tasks. In a lower court, employees were awarded half of what their counsel requested. The case has raised interesting questions about collective action lawsuits, as the case involves more than 3,000 workers in total: Should that many employees be allowed to file their complaint at one time, in a single case?
The Supreme Court has approached the case less as an issue of wage violations and more as a debate over what the threshold should be for the number of participants in a collective action lawsuit. Yet, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the employees, Tyson may pay out even more than they did in the Sara Lee case–approximately $6 million.


The Sara Lee case is a unique one in that a significant number of workers were courageous enough to file complaints and patient enough to wait for the legislative process to work over several years. Not every discrimination case is investigated by the EEOC, either because there is not sufficient evidence or because victims do not feel safe reporting misconduct. Hopefully, the Sara Lee case will inspire other companies to enact preventative measures to disband discrimination. The EEOC has delivered a decisive victory for the employees of the Texas factory, we’ll have to see what effects it might have in future discrimination cases.
Staff Writer Jillian Sequeira, Law Street Media
Read original article in Law Street Media

EEOC: $4M settlement sends message that work discrimination won’t be tolerated

Federal attorneys with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Tuesday that a $4 million settlement for former workers at the now closed Sara Lee factory in Paris, Texas, sends a message to employers that workplace discrimination and dangerous work environments won’t be tolerated.

Black employees suffered intimidation, racial taunts including being called the ‘N’ word, and racist graffiti on the walls of bathrooms and the locker room at the plant in Paris, Suzanne Anderson, supervisory trial attorney with the EEOC, said at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Dallas. In addition, the former bakery employees were required to work in hazardous areas of the plant, exposing them to toxic materials, she said.

 Hillshire Brands Co., which formerly owned Sara Lee, will pay a total of $4 million to a group of 74 African American former employees and take other steps to settle the lawsuit.
Human resources professionals and employment lawyers especially should take note of the settlement, Jay Ellwanger, an Austin attorney for workers who had filed a civil suit before the EEOC filed its case, told me in an interview before the news conference.
The Paris plant was a Sara Lee factory for decades, Ellwanger said. Hillshire Brands, which owned the Sara Lee brand, sold the brand to Bimbo Bakeries, but closed the Paris plant instead of selling it to Sara Lee. So Bimbo Bakeries currently owns Sara Lee, but Hillshire Brands owns the liabilities from the plant, and Tyson Foods has since acquired Hillshire Brands, Ellwanger said.
He said he does not know whether the discrimination allegations and pending litigation factored into the decision to sell the Paris plant.
“We certainly had our suspicions,” Ellwanger said. “The timing was suspect.”
The 74 former Sara Lee employees received varying amounts, and they have all received their checks from the company, Anderson told me in an interview after the conference
The two-year consent decree settling the case provides for an injunction under which Hillshire will implement anti-discrimination or harassment programs and conduct training to prevent and promptly address graffiti in other Texas plants it owns.

Sara Wyn Kane, a New York attorney who represented the clients in the lawsuit, said the takeaway for employers is that it’s never acceptable to treat people differently based on the color of their skin, nor is it acceptable to allow others to do so. She said that job site discrimination and harassment continues to be a significant problem at large and small companies nationwide.

“As an employer, you have an obligation to make sure that people can come to work free of discrimination, and free of fearing for their health and safety,” Kane said. “If you see that or learn about it, you need to stop it as an employer. You can’t sit back and hope it goes away or think that it’s OK.”

The settlement is the largest in the history of the EEOC in Dallas involving a hostile work environment.

-Staff Writer Bill Heathcock, Dallas Business Journal 

$4 Million Victory Against Turner Industries

Jury returns verdict of over $4 million for two East Texas employees of Turner Industries subjected to racial steering, denial of advancement and racial harassment. These are two plaintiffs in a wave of hundreds to be tried.
Since early 2009, Valli Kane & Vagnini and DiNovo Price & Ellwanger have jointly represented their clients in a historic Title VII Civil Rights battle against Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Turner Industries Group.  The firms became involved when they responded to requests for representation from a small number of African-American laborers working for Turner Industries in their pipe fabrication plant in Paris, Texas.   Evidence supported allegations of a widespread hostile work environment for African-Americans; nooses were displayed in the workplace, along with repeated racial graffiti and the use of racial epithets by white co-workers and supervisors.  Rather than respond to workers’ request for help, a high level decision was made by Turner Industries to deny these allegations and fight the workers who had complained to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
Following a year-long investigation by the EEOC, during which Turner Industries permitted this environment to continue, African-American workers received their first victory when the EEOC issued its determination that a class of African-American workers were subjected to unlawful racial harassment, discrimination, and retaliation at the hands of Turner Industries.  Turner retreated and chose to once again turn their backs on their remaining African-American employees who were subjected to similar treatment for years.  As a result, over 275 current and former African-American men and women came forward with evidence of racial harassment in other Turner locations such as their Port Allen, Louisiana and Pasadena, Texas,  as well as Turner’s third-party work locations throughout the Gulf South.  These work sites were owned and operated by large companies (and Turner customers) such as ExxonMobil, Sasol, Marathon, and Westlake, among others.
Given Turner’s refusal to address these widespread problems, these employees brought their claims to Federal Court.  The claims of the Texas employees are filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas and the claims of Louisiana employees are filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.  The first wave of 10 plaintiffs went to trial on October 15, 2012.  After a four day trial, African-American workers at Turner were handed another monumental victory: the jury awarded over $4 million in damages to two of the Plaintiffs.  The two cases were vastly different from one another.  One Plaintiff worked for Turner Industries for several years up until he was fired in 2008.  He was subjected to an extensive hostile work environment where he was exposed to numerous racial epithets by his co-workers and supervisors, including the “N” word.   The second Plaintiff did not allege a hostile work environment.  Instead, upon hiring, he was steered into a Painting and Blasting department where African-American employees were segregated from White workers.  This was and still is a dangerous environment where employees were not provided proper safety gear and where they were paid significantly less than the White workers who were steered to the better paying positions.  This Plaintiff made repeated attempts to obtain transfers and promotions out of this department based on his qualifications, but he was repeatedly denied.
While not all Plaintiffs were victorious in their fight, this is the first of many trials to come for Turner Industries with respect to these claims.  This is a solid victory, especially considering that a jury from a historically-conservative area awarded far in excess of what these two Plaintiffs even requested in damages.  The jury sent a very loud message to Turner Industries with its verdict.  With over 260 cases remaining to be tried, the business of discriminating against hard working African-Americans may cost Turner Industries far more than they expected.  The battle continues.

Nooses in the Workplace: A Disturbing Trend

Noose, workplace, eeoc, discriminationA noose is placed on a desk or a chair, or on a door or in a locker. The symbolism is clear. Nooses in the workplace are meant to intimidate because of race. The noose of the hangman is meant to be a frightening visual representation of the harassment that included thousands of black people who died at the hands of lynch mobs following the civil war and on into the twentieth century. This history has led to symbolic use of a noose. It has long been a tool of various hate groups. The turning up of nooses in the workplace has been having an affect on black employees, and that affect has been spilling over to affect other minorities.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) officials and law enforcement officials report on this trend. While companies routinely try to settle nooses in the workplace cases out of court, the EEOC are always pursuing dozens of such cases. The EEOC point out that, when in seen light of their overall caseload, these cases are disproportionally high.  The EEOC maintains that nooses in the workplace is a growing trend.
Every case of nooses in the workplace has its own distinctive characteristics, but there seem to be elements common to most of the cases brought forward. The noose is almost never the only method of intimidation. Racist slurs, racial epithets, racist jokes, racist graffiti and other ongoing intimidation and harassment usually accompany the noose.
discrimination suit, rascism, workplace
No one knows for sure why these racist incidents have risen lately. Some discrimination attorneys have speculated that there may be a growing intolerance by younger workers not familiar with the civil rights movement and struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The incident may grow out of resentment of some whites over the implementation of affirmative action resulting in diverse workplaces where blacks and minorities were previously excluded.
Another reason cited for the rise in such incidents reported to EEOC is a growing number of employers fighting it in court. Some employers are referring to the incidents as banter and horseplay between employees without harmful intentions.Diversity, discrimination, equality, workplace
There have been some accusations of minority workers filing false claims for purpose of collecting money. Employment and discrimination attorneys generally agree that a false claim of racially related harassment, violence and misconduct in the workplace is extremely rare. History has borne out that out; there have been only a handful of false claims involving nooses in the workplace. Employment and discrimination attorneys also point out that, when subjected to scrutiny, the false claims are easily brought to light.

VKV and DiNovo Price Ellwanger & Hardy with Hank Aaron at the Unveiling of Ambassador Young Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Robert J. Valli, Jr., Jay Ellwanger, Hank Aaron, Rev. Peter Johnson, David Ellwanger

Pictured here (from left to right) at the Unveiling of Ambassador Andrew Young’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery: Robert J. Valli, Jr., Jay Ellwanger, Hank Aaron, Rev. Peter Johnson, and David Ellwanger.  Baseball legend, Hank Aaron was in attendance to honor the life and work of Ambassador Young.  Hank Aaron was the last African-American player from the Negro Leagues to play in the major leagues.  He played 21 seasons with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, where he achieved most of his acclaim and records.  In 2002, Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Hundreds rally against local oil company accused of racial discrimination

HOUSTON — Rev. Peter Johnson and civil rights activist Sara Kane joined hundreds of African American workers and local residents Monday in a rally against a company they say is doing nothing to prevent racial harassment of minority workers.
The protest was held in front of the Mickey Leland Federal Office Building on 1919 Smith Street around 11:30 a.m.
Protesters urged for a federal investigation of Turner Industries in Houston, claiming there are nooses and rebel flags hung up at the factory. They feel this is a violation of their civil rights.
Turner, a 1.6 billion dollar company that services the oil industry, has had issues in the past related to civil rights in other cities.
Original Press :

by staff

Posted on January 31, 2011 at 1:53 PM

Updated Monday, Jan 31 at 11:35 PM