MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses General Nutrition Center of tolerating systematic racism and letting one New York supervisor call some of his black employees an “African booty scratcher” and “ghetto black trash.”
Kenroy Richmond, Samuel Warkie, Prince R. Siaw and Marlon Hattimore say they suffered racist abuse from GNC supervisor Neil Blitzer between 1994 and 2009, and that Blitzer worked to keep black and African-born employees off the workforce.
Richmond, born in Jamaica, says he was promoted to manager of a GNC branch in Greenburgh, N.Y., in 1998 – the same year that GNC hired Blitzer. Richmond says that Blitzer routinely told him he should not speak to customers because of his accent and suggested that he uses drugs because of his nationality.
In 2002, Blitzer allegedly gave Richmond increasingly poor performance reviews to justify transferring him to a lower-paying, less-desirable job in nearby White Plains.
Richmond says Blitzer eventually fired him in 2007 after additional bad write-ups.
Ghana-born Warkie and Siaw say Blitzer also fabricated false warnings against them for job performance, before demoting and firing them. In addition, they claim Blitzer often hurled toxic epithets and stereotypes at them.
Siaw, who worked in Greenburgh, says Blitzer frequently called him an “African booty scratcher” and “the bush man,” while Warkie, who worked in White Plains, says Blitzer told him to “Go back to Africa.”
Hattimore, a black employee in the Greenburgh store, says two white subordinates with less experience than him received better pay. He added that Blitzer called him “ghetto black trash” and said “you can’t take a hoodlum and put him in a business suit.”
Though Hattimore said he returned from a vacation to find GNC replaced him with a white employee, GNC denies that they fired Hattimore. The chain also claims Hattimore was once arrested for getting involved in a fight at the store. Hattimore counters that he was not involved and merely tried to stop an ongoing fight.
In a 30-page order green-lighting the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Laura Swain said that the employees’ claims for hostile work environment and negligent supervision are credible enough to weather dismissal motions.
“In short, the Court finds that there is evidence that frequent, highly offensive remarks were made to each Plaintiff over a long period of time, and that this, in combination with Plaintiffs’ allegations of adverse employment actions, is sufficient to support a finding that the conduct as a whole rose to the level of hostile work environment,” the order states.
An attorney for the employees praised the ruling and said GNC has quietly settled at least three similar cases in the past, some of which implicate Blitzer.
“We certainly think that the judge made the right decision,” attorney Daryl Earl Davis of Doman Davis told Courthouse News. “There are definitely other immigrants that have alleged similar incidents.”
The plaintiffs testified that they complained repeatedly to headquarters to no avail and cited other lawsuits with similar allegations.
One such suit, filed by Gambian immigrant Sulayman Mbenga in 2004, alleged that Blitzer mocked his accent, and systematically transferred, demoted and fired him and other immigrant employees, court documents reveal.
Davis, the attorney in the more recent case, said GNC settled the case shortly before trial that year. Instead of firing or disciplining Blitzer, Davis said GNC let him take a new job after another round of employees sued in 2007
One of the most egregious cases, he said, involved former GNC store manager Yvonne Oliver, who allegedly was fired after refusing to give negative testimony about another employee arbitrating discrimination complaints.
Davis carefully added that, at this point, the claims lobbed against GNC by his clients – like their predecessors – are still untried allegations.
Judge Swain urged the parties to meet with Magistrate Judge Henry Pitman promptly “for settlement purposes and to address any outstanding pretrial issues.”
Davis would not indicate whether his clients would pursue a settlement or a trial.
Attorneys for GNC and Blitzer did not immediately respond to a call for comment.