Friday, January 22, 2010

Another Discrimination Lawsuit Against Whirlpool -
Racism Tolerated (Encouraged?) in Whirlpool Workplaces

Former Whirlpool employee gets $1M from harassment lawsuit

By Chastity Gunn, Dec. 24, 2009

A former Whirlpool employee who claimed her complaints about racial and sexual harassment were ignored by company management received a $1 million award from a federal court Monday.

Judge John T. Nixon found that every level of management of the now defunct La Vergne [Whirlpool] plant failed to respond to Carlotta Freeman's complaints. The harassment eventually spewed over into a physical altercation.

Freeman, an African-American woman, testified that her co-worker Willie Baker, a white male, repeatedly made "sexually explicit and racially charged statements" to her for two months, according to court documents.

Baker denied making the comments, but "the court does not find Baker's testimony to be credible on this point," the judge's order states.

Freeman repeatedly complained to her direct supervisor Charlie Fisher about Baker's comments and behavior. Fisher assured her he would do something and "suggested that Freeman ignore Baker," according to court documents.

But, Fisher did not investigate the allegations and did not discuss them with Baker.

An attempt by The DNJ to get comment from Whirlpool was unsuccessful.
The La Vergne plant, which employed more than 500 people, closed in August 2008.

On March 22, 2004, Baker used racial slurs directed at Freeman and co-worker Chinica Lillard, who is also African-American, while working on the assembly line, court documents state. "Freeman felt threatened" so she reported his comments to her co-worker Kim Wheeler, who is white. Then, Wheeler reported the comments to their supervisor, Fisher, who spoke with Baker, Freeman and Lillard separately about the matter.

Fisher told Baker and Freeman to ignore each other and not talk to each other except if necessary. But Freeman contends that immediately after that meeting, Baker approached her in the break area and began harrassing her again. When she told Fisher, he allegedly told her to go ahead and have sex with Baker so that he would leave her alone.

"One of the supervisors in a sense said 'to go sleep with him and get it over' — not an appropriate response to a sexual harassment case," said Andy Allman, a Hendersonville lawyer who represented Freeman.

Whirlpool argued that "Baker's conduct, if it occurred at all, was not what a reasonable person would find to be race-based harassment."

On March 26, 2004, Baker told the human resources director Fred Contreras that he felt threatened by Freeman and that he had reported this to Fisher. Contreras didn't believe Freeman was threatening to Baker, but thought Baker could be the target of co-worker harassment, according to the judge's order. He asked the human resources manager for the La Vergne division to look into the situation.

Later that day, Baker walked up to Freeman and punched her in the face knocking her onto the assembly line where she was hit by air conditioners coming down the line, documents state. He continued trying to punch her until Lillard got Freeman on the floor. "Baker picked up a steel valve and threw it at the two women yelling 'I'm going to get you too' at Lillard."

Baker said Wheeler told him Freeman had a gun, so he hit Freeman.

After an investigation, he was terminated for "gross misconduct." He was convicted of assault.

Freeman returned to work the next day and took an "open-ended leave of absence." She later resigned upon the advice of her psychiatrist and psychologist.

Whirlpool contended that Baker's assault on Freeman was not racially or sexually motivated, "but by his delusional belief that Freeman had a gun at work."

The court disagreed and found that "Baker's behavior escalated in response to the only intervention by Whirlpool management in his harassment of Freeman — the March 22 meeting called by Fisher."

Several medical experts testified that Freeman had developed chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and couldn't participate in normal activities.

"She's completely disabled, not able to work because of the incident," Allman said. "She is pretty much a complete introvert, rarely leaves her home anymore."

The court ordered Whirlpool to pay Freeman a little more than $1 million.