A U.S. District Court judge has ordered a racial harassment lawsuit against flexible packaging supplier Bemis Co. Inc. to go to trial.
The case, first brought in May 2001 at U.S. District Court in Terre Haute, Ind., alleges that Bemis employees spread a pervasive attitude of racial discrimination at Bemis' Terre Haute plant. The attitude led to countless instances of racially charged graffiti, hanging nooses on the plant floor and even a possible connection to the murder of an African-American man at the plant, the suit contends.
Minneapolis-based Bemis had asked for a summary dismissal of the case, saying that evidence was not strong enough to show an attitude of harassment at the entire plant. On Nov. 17, Judge John Tinder wrote in a 68-page ruling that the case should be bound over for trial due to the possibility of benign neglect by management to a serious atmosphere of racial discrimination.
The lawsuit was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and claimed at least 19 incidents of racial harassment. The suit lists 16 plaintiffs, each seeking $300,000 in damages, said Jean Kamp, a Milwaukee-based regional attorney for the EEOC.
Bemis' Terre Haute plant has 27 African-American employees out of 1,100 workers, Kamp said. Most of the plaintiffs are still employed at the facility, she said.
The case claims that Bemis violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Kamp said. It claims that workers were subjected to a racially hostile environment that included a display on more than one occasion of a hangman's noose in the plant.
Dating back to the early 1990s, the complaint also alleges that graffiti was frequently written on plant walls, using a variety of racial epithets and derogatory statements such as ``Hang 'Em All,'' Kamp said. Confederate flags also flew at various times in the plant, and supervisors used such terms as ``colored girls'' and ``Aunt Jemima'' to describe workers, she said.
In 2001, an African-American worker was murdered at the plant, and the alleged killer later committed suicide, Kamp said. While the murder was not caused by the plant atmosphere, the racially charged environment did not help the situation, she said.
Bemis officals do not comment on pending litigation but the case is nothing new, said spokeswoman Melanie Miller. ``It is just progressing through the court system,'' she said.
Kamp claimed that after the lawsuit was filed in 2001, the racial instances continued. But the main issue is the plant's reluctance to address the situation on a larger scale, she said
``They did not have a policy against racial harassment that has been particularly effective,'' Kamp said. ``At one point, they found someone who [wrote graffiti] and only suspended him for 30 days but then brought him back to work. They just haven't gotten the message.''