Employer’s Sloppy Investigation Leads to Trial on Discrimination Claim

Andrea Murphy
Andrea Murphy
12/13/2019

A federal court in Pennsylvania recently ruled that an African American mine worker who faced several instances of racist epithets and imagery at the work site produced sufficient evidence to overcome the mining company’s motion for summary judgment.  Robinson v. Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company, LLC, No. 2:18-cv-00555-NR (W.D. Penn. 11/27/19)

Robinson worked for Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company (Consol).  Over the course of several years, he faced various instances of racism at work, including others’ use of the n-word, the placing of a noose and a racist cartoon at the work site, and an illustration of a KKK clansman complete with a pointy hat and “Grand Wizard” label, etched into a dust tank.

Robinson reported at least some of these events but argued that Consol responded inadequately.  As to the KKK etching, Consol investigated by meeting collectively with the work crews and individually with two workers who regularly operated the dust tank.  Consol claimed that it reiterated the company’s anti-discrimination and harassment policies and reminded the employees that instances of harassment would warrant appropriate action.  None of the meetings, however, revealed the culprit.

Robinson, on the other hand, claimed that Consol merely spoke about defacement of company property generally but failed to mention the KKK etching specifically, even after one of the workers asked what was etched on the tank.  He also faulted Consol for failing to bring the two dust tank employees to HR and by erroneously concluding that they had nothing to do with the KKK etching even though they witnessed its realization.

Robinson brought racially hostile work environment and discrimination claims under § 1981, Title VII, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.  Consol moved for summary judgment on Robinson’s claims, which the Court denied in part.

As for Robinson’s evidence, the Court primarily focused on the KKK etching.  First, it found that the etching was, by itself, sufficient to establish a prima facie case of a hostile work environment under Third Circuit precedent.  And, this did not even account for the other instances of racially charged conduct Robinson faced at work.  The Court also considered the “racially violent items and images” in light of the workplace setting — a mine — which was rich with “obvious inherent dangers” that enhanced the environment of hostility and threats.

Second, the Court concluded that the KKK etching raised a triable issue of Consol’s liability for the hostile work environment.  On one hand, Robinson and Consol disagreed as to what Consol did exactly in response to the incident.  On the other hand, even the undisputed facts — that Consol only interviewed the two dust tank workers; that HR did not interview them; that the workers admitted to witnessing the evolution of the etching; that no culprit was found; and that no one was punished — satisfied the Court that a jury could conclude that Consol was negligent in responding to the harassment.

If you fear there may be a discrimination case in your future, please call Kollman & Saucier, P.A. at (410) 727-4300 for assistance.

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