IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit on behalf of black employees of a national food distribution company, alleging that supervisors condoned discrimination by allowing racist graffiti at an Iowa warehouse.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Iowa, claims managers at the Mason City warehouse of the MBM Corporation failed to remove the racist graffiti or take reasonable action to prevent it for three months after receiving a complaint from a black worker last year. During that time period, supervisors used the restroom where racial epithets, a swastika and a reference to the Ku Klux Klan appeared but they failed to remove it, the lawsuit says.
"Despite members of management frequently using the men's room, the racist graffiti was not removed and no effective action was taken to discover the author of the graffiti, or to otherwise prevent future graffiti," the lawsuit says.
The warehouse referred questions to its corporate office in Rocky Mount, N.C., where messages seeking comment were left Wednesday. MBM says it is one of the nation's largest foodservice distributors for restaurant chains and is privately held.
The lawsuit says employee Justin Green complained in May 2011 to a supervisor that a swastika and a racial epithet were visible in the men's restroom near a warehouse dock. A month later, Green noticed that graffiti was blacked out but a new statement referencing the Ku Klux Klan and hatred of blacks had appeared. The graffiti remained for another month, until the cleaning of the walls partially obscured but did not completely remove it.
Green was asked the next month by managers why he had filed a complaint with the EEOC, and he explained "the graffiti remained clearly visible for at least three months and that he did not have to deal with it," the lawsuit says. At least two other black employees noticed the graffiti.
"Shortly thereafter, the men's restroom was painted, finally removing the racist graffiti completely," the lawsuit says.
The lack of earlier action amounted to "condoning the racial harassment of Green and other aggrieved black employees because of their race," the lawsuit says. It seeks orders requiring the company to stop tolerating racial harassment and to institute policies providing equal employment opportunities for black employees that "eradicate the effects of its past and present unlawful employment practices."
EEOC also is seeking damages to compensate employees for their humiliation and to punish the company for "its malicilous and reckless conduct."
Racist graffiti has often contributed to EEOC discrimination lawsuits that have led to monetary settlements in the past.
In 2010, the agency reached a $10 million settlement that alleged a freight hauling company subjected black employees at locations in suburban Chicago to racist graffiti, comments cartoons and other incidents. In 2009, the grocery store chain Albertson's paid $8.9 million to resolve lawsuits claiming blacks and Hispanics were called offensive names in graffiti in the men's restroom, which also included depictions of swastikas.