BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – A Verizon manager in Alabama is said to have told his black employees that he thought the KKK “was one of the greatest organizations anyone could ever be in,” adding that he’d go to meetings more often if he knew where they were. But those and other racial comments were not severe enough to create a hostile work environment, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Margo Mills, who began working in retail sales for Verizon in November 2012, alleges that her store manager Kerry Gould, a white man who is not a defendant in the case, began making racist remarks to her and her black co-workers and then discriminated against them by scheduling them to close the Trussville, Alabama, store on weekends far more often than their white co-workers.
Mills says that when she and another black employee complained to Gould about the scheduling bias, he initially put Mills in charge of scheduling but then took back the duties after a couple months and again placed black employees on weekend closing shifts.
After she complained to higher-ups at Verizon in December 2014, Mills was transferred to another store in Wildwood, Alabama, where she claims the race discrimination continued under the supervision of another black woman, who allegedly warned Mills not to “come off as black and loud” in front of customers.
Chief U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre in Birmingham found in Mills’ favor Tuesday by denying Verizon’s motion for summary judgment on her claim of racist weekend scheduling practices, finding the company did not give a non-discriminatory reason for black employees to be scheduled more regularly for less desirable shifts.
But the judge also found that Gould’s alleged comments to employees were not bad enough to create a hostile work environment.
The opinion lists 10 distinct allegations of Gould’s racist remarks to black employees, including that he “felt like KKK was one of the greatest organizations anyone could ever be in” and would attend more meetings if he knew where they were.
Beside the KKK remarks, Gould also allegedly said that “black people come off as being hood,” considered black customers “fraud risks,” claimed former President Barack Obama “just wants to get in so all the blacks can get on food stamps and welfare,” and asked a black employee if he was a drug dealer “because he drove an expensive car,” according to the ruling.
Judge Bowdre ruled Tuesday that “a jury could not reasonably find that Mr. Gould’s repeated racial statements, including approving references to the KKK, were severe and pervasive enough to create [a] hostile work environment under Title VII.”
“Mr. Gould’s allegedly approving references to the Ku Klux Klan do strike this court as the types of comments that could be objectively severe because of their capacity to intimidate an employee, especially an African American,” she wrote in the 28-page ruling. “But Ms. Mills’s testified that both of Mr. Gould’s comments about the KKK occurred during a single conversation, very early in her time working under his management. … Ms. Mills also specifically testified that she did not feel physically threatened at the time Mr. Gould made these comments but rather ‘felt hurt [she] was working with a racist.’”
Bowdre continued, “While offensive and potentially threatening, Mr. Gould’s single incident of making allegedly approving comments about the KKK fails to create an objectively hostile work environment, because Mr. Gould never made any subsequent reference to the KKK or any other potentially threatening comments… Except for the isolated KKK comments, none of Ms. Mills’s other allegations are severe enough to create a racially hostile work environment under Title VII.”
At the summary judgment stage, when determining whether claims can be decided without going to a jury, judges are required to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party — Mills, in this case, as Verizon sought summary judgment.
Her claims of unfair scheduling practices could end up going before a jury.