Tuesday, July 08, 2008

LEGAL BRIEF: Co-Worker Rapped Racial Slurs Despite Complaints—Black Worker Awarded $168,000 Settlement

The Legal Brief gives everyone an idea of some of the types of cases that EEOC litigates, as well as an idea about the specific race-based issues that other Blacks have faced and challenged in the workplace. You will also get insight into the arguments presented by EEOC and the defenses offered by employers. This information may be helpful to other workers, who may be considering filing a complaint or seeking legal counsel. In this case, a Black worker was subjected to listening to rap music with offensive language and racial epithets. He was also forced to listen to a coworker rapping along to the music and using racial slang within earshot.

SAN JOSE – A major Silicon Valley manufacturer of semiconductor production equipment will pay $168,000 to settle a racial harassment and retaliation lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC had charged Novellus Systems, Inc. with subjecting an African American worker to racial harassment.

According to the EEOC’s suit, Michael Cooke had to listen on a regular basis to a 27-year-old Vietnamese American co-worker playing and rapping aloud to music lyrics that included anti-black racial epithets such as the “N-word.”

Although Cooke complained several times to his supervisors and made it clear that the language was offensive to him, the co-worker continued to use slang involving racial slurs and to sing along to these kinds of lyrics within Cooke’s earshot.

The EEOC’s lawsuit charged that delaying effective corrective action by more than half a year constitutes unlawful harassment, and that Cooke was fired in retaliation for his earlier complaints.

The two-year consent decree (Case No. C-07-4787-JW) signed by U.S. District Court Judge James Ware includes monetary damages of $168,000 as well as specific injunctive relief. While Novellus denied liability and admitted no wrongdoing, it agreed to incorporate a “Statement of Zero-Tolerance Policy and Equality Objectives” in its Equal Employment Opportunity and Harassment Policy. Additionally, Novellus agreed to amend its harassment policy to refer specifically to harassment through the playing of music, and to include offensive musical lyrics in its examples of racial harassment.

“The EEOC is not in the business of judging anyone’s musical tastes, but we are concerned when we find that an employer failed to respond promptly after being put on notice of racially offensive language or conduct in the workplace,” said EEOC Regional Attorney William R. Tamayo. “We commend the company for resolving this action and for agreeing to modify its anti-discrimination policies to include a specific prohibition of the playing of music lyrics that contain racially derogatory terms.”

Acting EEOC District Director Michael Baldonado commented, “This is the kind of situation that many Bay Area workplaces, as well as the rest of the country face: How do you manage the culture clash – across generations, race and ethnicity, you name it – in a workplace that gets more diverse every day? I think it’s critical to try to put yourself into the shoes of the other person and take all complaints of discrimination seriously. Together we can try to defuse tensions and prevent situations from developing into discrimination and harassment.”

Baldonado added that the EEOC welcomes employers and advocates to take part in its E-RACE Initiative (Eradicating Racism and Colorism from Employment). Launched early last year by EEOC Chair Naomi C. Earp, E-RACE, a national outreach, education, and enforcement campaign focuses on new and emerging race and color issues in the 21st century workplace. Further information about the E-RACE Initiative is available on the EEOC’s website at http://www.eeoc.gov/initiatives/e-race/index.html.

According to its website, San Jose, Calif.- headquartered Novellus (NASDAQ: NVLS) maintains engineering facilities in San Jose and Tualatin, Ore., with sales and service operations in 16 countries around the world. Novellus has approximately 3,300 employees worldwide and annual revenues of $1.6 billion.

The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. The San Francisco District’s jurisdiction includes Northern California, Northern Nevada, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at http://www.eeoc.gov.


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