A former employee of a construction firm in Pleasanton recently sued the company and its owners for racial discrimination and harassment. The former employee, who is African American, alleges that the owners repeatedly made sexist and racist remarks, and treated her differently because of her race and gender. She also alleges that her job duties were curtailed and she was fired for her complaints about the behavior.

The woman stated that she repeatedly faced ongoing hostility from the company’s owner, which over time became increasingly worse. Finally, at a Christmas party in 2016, she was subjected to more bad behavior. She approached a table containing presents for a white elephant gift exchange. The company’s owner insisted that she pick one particular gift, although she protested that she thought she could pick her own gift. He also said she could not trade it for any other gift.

She did not open the present in front of the group. When she got to her car, she saw it was a purse with the confederate flag. Inside the purse were pictures of the owners in front of a Confederate flag. In one picture, an owner was dressed like Donald Trump. In another picture, the female owner modeled the Confederate flag purse. The pictures were taken in the company’s office.

In addition to the behavior at the Christmas party, the owners of the company allegedly made racist comments about other workers, at times in front of them. If anyone protested, according to the lawsuit, their concerns would be laughed off and the worker told “he’s just kidding” or “that was an after 4:30 p.m. kind of joke”. The lawsuit it asking for an unspecified amount of damages, as well as punitive damages.

By law, discrimination based on race are illegal under federal and state laws. Racial discrimination means treating a job applicant or an employee unfavorably because of his or her race, or because of certain characteristics associated with race. Racial discrimination also includes treating someone unfavorably because he or she is married or associated with a person of a certain race.

Harassment based on race or ethnicity is also illegal. Harassment can include racial slurs or offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s race or ethnicity. Racial harassment can also include the display of racially offensive symbols, such as a swastika or a noose. Light teasing or isolated offhand comments that are not serious are usually not illegal. The harassment only becomes illegal when it is severe or so frequent that it becomes a hostile or offensive work environment, or if a victim is fired or demoted as a result. One common misperception is that the harasser must be the victim’s supervisor. The harasser can be anyone in the workplace, including a supervisor, a co-worker, or even a non-employee such as a client or a customer.

Under current law, it’s unclear if the display of a Confederate flag in the workplace, when taken alone, is considered racial discrimination or harassment. Several cases have found that the display of a Confederate flag at work is not enough, in and of itself, to create a hostile work environment. In addition, dressing up like the President of the United States is likely to not be considered racial harassment. However, when looking at the totality of the circumstances that were alleged in this case, including the racist remarks and jokes, being terminated for complaints about the behavior, and the display of the flag, could lead a court to conclude that the woman was subjected to a hostile work environment.

As you can see, racial discrimination cases are very fact-dependent. At Liberty Law, Micha Star Liberty believes that no employee should be discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of his or her race. If you live in the Oakland-San Francisco area and have been the victim of racial discrimination, call Micha Star Liberty, Oakland-San Francisco racial discrimination attorney at 510-645-1000. She can help. Call today to learn more or to schedule a free consultation.

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