FREMONT, Calif. (CN) – DeWitt Lambert thought he’d found the “brighter future” he was seeking in California when Tesla’s Fremont factory hired him – but that was before his supervisors subjected him to racial and sexual harassment and threats of violence, he claims in court. Even worse, he says, Tesla punished him for complaining about it.
“This was my dream job and it turned into a nightmare,” Lambert said in a Monday statement. “When I began working at Tesla I was happier than I’ve ever been. Now, I’ve experienced discrimination worse than anything I experienced growing up in Alabama and I’m scared for my safety every evening when I leave the plant.”
“We all thought that as Americans we had moved passed this, but clearly we haven’t and clearly corporate America wants to be able to do whatever it wants,” Larry Organ, an attorney with the California Civil Rights Law Group who represents Lambert, said in an interview Tuesday.
Lambert, who is African-American and an electrician by trade, outlines his history with the company in his 21-page lawsuit. He moved to California from Alabama in 2012 and began working at the Tesla factory, building electric cars on a production line, three years later.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Monday, goes on to detail how 44-year-old Lambert’s 20-something coworkers began calling him “nigger” a month into the job, and sexually harassing him based on “racial and sexual stereotypes of African American males.” They inserted a drill gun into his buttocks while he was bending over, and made multiple comments about the size of his penis, he says.
Coworkers also recorded lewd and racist videos on his phone, according to Lambert, including one that was laced liberally with the n-word and described cutting Lambert into pieces and sending his body parts to his family.
Lambert says Tesla’s HR department ignored his complaints. Instead, the high-tech electric car company promoted Lambert’s harassers, who then supervised him on the line, according to the complaint.
Eventually, Tesla transferred Lambert to another line, but he claims his coworkers were intent on getting him fired and the harassment continued. A supervisor reported him for eating a candy bar on the production floor, even though employees had passed around a box of donuts without incident a few days before, he says. Another coworker allegedly reported Lambert for posting a photo on Facebook of himself inside the plant, a breach of company policy. Lambert received a final written warning over the incident, while other employees who posted similar photos online faced no consequences, he says.
Worse, Lambert says, Tesla retaliated against him for complaining about his coworkers’ behavior. The company refused to promote him, falsely accused him of threatening his coworkers and using profanity in the workplace, and investigated him “for conduct in the distant past,” according to the complaint.
“I asked for help from Tesla’s management and it never came,” Lambert said in the statement.
Tesla, however, says that Lambert fabricated the complaints against his coworkers to save his job.
According to a company spokesperson, Lambert got into an argument with a coworker in April 2016 and threatened him with violence. Another employee filmed the incident, and Lambert thought that they had turned the video over to HR to get him fired, though they never did.
HR investigated, but found no evidence that Lambert’s coworkers had acted inappropriately toward him, Tesla says. It coached the employees on proper workplace behavior and closed the investigation.
Three months later, Tesla says Lambert showed HR an old video containing racially charged language, and HR reopened its investigation. However, Tesla says that Lambert also used racist language in private Facebook messages with a coworker.
Tesla has suspended Lambert with pay while it conducts its investigation, and it has fired several employees over the incidents, according to the company’s spokesperson.
“It’s clear that our investigation should have continued uninterrupted until all the facts were known,” the spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday. “However, it’s also clear that Dewitt’s version of events is not supported by the facts.”
“The lawsuit has been timed to coincide with a carefully planned media blitz in an attempt to create a disingenuous narrative that is at odds with the facts,” the spokesperson added.
Organ countered that his client complained to HR in 2015, “well before they’re alleging his complaint took place.”
Tesla says Lambert complained in April 2016.
Organ added that the recipient of Lambert’s Facebook messages wasn’t a Tesla employee at the time it was sent, and only began working at the factory later on.
In addition, Lambert had only used the word “nigga” in the messages, and not the more racially charged “nigger.”
“They’re suggesting he used it and therefore it makes it OK that he used it,” Organ said. “He’s the only African-American in this mix, and if they’re Caucasian, Filipino, Hispanic, they don’t get to use the n-word. It sounds like a double standard, but that’s the way it is.”
“How about that Jr., who be with Christian. Tried to videotape me and turn me in. Nigga a cop at work, Christian sold me out too,” one message reads.
“It doesn’t even come close to showing he somehow engaged in that conduct with them,” Organ said of the messages. “That’s their proof he used that language with them. It doesn’t prove anything. [The recipient] is not one of the harassers.”
“They’re clearly doing it to try to smear Mr. Lambert and take the eye off the ball, which is that the n-word in the workplace is not acceptable,” he added.
Lambert’s allegations aren’t the first to raise questions about the conditions at the Fremont plant, which employs 6,200 workers. In February, Jose Moran, who claims to work at the plant, complained online about the company’s unsafe working conditions, low pay, excessive mandatory overtime, unfair promotions and high turnover.
In the post, Moran said that employees are considering unionizing through United Auto Workers, and that Tesla is attempting to squash their efforts by requiring them to sign confidentiality agreements threatening “consequences” if they do.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk countered in a direct message on Twitter to technology website Gizmodo that the company offers higher starting pay than unionized workers receive through UAW. He also claimed that Moran isn’t a Tesla employee but someone UAW hired to agitate for a union.
Lambert is suing for racial and sexual harassment, race discrimination, retaliation, and assault and battery, among other grievances.
He seeks unspecified damages and an injunction requiring Tesla to better train its staff on race and sex harassment, discrimination, retaliation and its duty to conduct more thorough investigations of workplace complaints.