A Virginia man alleges that his coworker called him “boy” numerous times and compared him to a monkey–and then handed him a bag of fried chicken as an “apology.”

Marcus Staples worked for Advanced Technology Recycling, an electronics de-manufacturing company headquartered in Pontiac, Illinois, with seven locations across the country. In Staples’ Complaint filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, he alleges that whenever the company’s project manager was on site, he referred to Staples and Staples’ African-American coworkers as “boy”—while referring to white co-coworkers by their given names. One of Staples’ coworkers has stated under oath that he “was so upset” by the manager’s “offensive racism, I frequently complained to [our supervisor] about it myself. During 2019, I complained to [her] about [the] behavior on approximately a weekly basis, either on my own or with co-workers. She said she would take care of it, but nothing changed to remedy the situation.” 

 The conduct escalated: Staples alleges that the manager derisively compared him to a monkey, and when Staples was offended and upset, the next day the manager handed him a baggie of fried chicken in front of multiple coworkers as a mocking “apology.”  

 Staples alleges in his Complaint, and multiple co-workers confirm under oath, that when the manager returned to the worksite after these incidents, he resumed calling Staples and his African-American coworkers “boy” —  the same as before. Staples alleges that the company went on to retaliate against him for filing an EEOC charge, baselessly disciplining him. When he refused to work through the EEOC to try to settle the charge [which indicated that Staples planned to sue], Staples alleges ATR fired him. 

 Fourth Circuit courts are clear-eyed about the historical context surrounding slurs like “monkey” and “boy” when these words are used toward African-American employees. The Fourth Circuit has explained that “use of the word ‘monkey’ to describe African-Americans [is] similarly odious. To suggest that a human being’s physical appearance is essentially a caricature of a jungle beast goes far beyond the merely unflattering; it is degrading and humiliating in the extreme.” Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179, 185 (4th Cir. 2001). In fact, the Supreme Court itself has recognized specifically that using the term “boy” to refer to adult African-American employees can be discriminatory. Ash v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 546 U.S. 454, 456-57 (2006). Fourth Circuit district courts follow these rulings by holding that “the use of ‘boy’ to address a black man has undeniable racial implications[,]” and that “to refer repeatedly to a black man as ‘boy’ is a notably severe and humiliating slur that militates in favor of a hostile work environment.” Noel v. UPS, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125587, *25 (D. Md. Sept. 9, 2014). Racial language such as “boy” or comparisons to animals such as “monkey” simply cannot be waved away under federal anti-discrimination law. Courts are not fooled: they recognize that “[t]here can be no question that Section 1981 recognizes ‘dog-whistle’ and coded racism just as much as it recognizes more explicit acts of racial animus.” Clark v. ACE AFSCME Local 2250, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138720, *9 (D. Md. Aug. 15, 2019). 

 As alleged in the Complaint, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, consistent with this history and precedent, found probable cause that ATR did in fact create a hostile work environment in Mr. Staples’ case by allowing the manager to repeatedly use racial slurs including “boy.” Staples’ case is now in active litigation, with trial expected this year.

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