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Déjà vu: Fresh act of discrimination may revive old complaints

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Generally, employees have to file discrimination lawsuits soon after an adverse employment decision or act of harassment. But sometimes employees can go far back in time if they can tie a recent event to past events.

If that happens, a jury may get to hear a litany of complaints, each adding weight to the other. While an employee may have endured only sporadic racist comments, the work environment will seem much worse to a jury that hears those incidents recounted one after the other.

Recent case: Ranee Tademy worked for Union Pacific Railroad from 1979 until he took disability leave in 2003. He said racial harassment in the workplace caused him to suffer depression and anxiety.

Beginning around 1995, Tademy complained to managers that he was being racially harassed after the “N” word was etched into his locker.

Later, he found two cartoons he considered racist posted on company bulletin boards. One was a crude drawing of a simian figure with an Afro and labeled “monkey.” Tademy removed one cartoon and reported the other to the union. Nothing happened. A year later, a co-worker referred to another black employee as a “[expletive] Kunta Kinte.” Again, no disciplinary action followed.

And so it went with each reported incident: Tademy would complain, and the culprits would either not be punished or received such mild reprimands that it became fodder for company humor. A co-worker once joked that “if you want a paid vacation, all you have to do is call Ranee Tademy a boy.”

On July 4, 2003, Tademy entered a building in the rail yard and found a life-size hangman’s noose prominently suspended from a large industrial clock. He became sick and vomited. An investigation followed, and the employee responsible was terminated. However, he was later reinstated. Tademy went on disability leave and sued, alleging a racially hostile environment.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that each racially tinged act could be introduced, as they were linked to the last incident and together might have created a hostile work environment. (Tademy v. Union Pacific, No. 06-4073, 10th Cir., 2008)

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