First Mate and HR Employee Aboard Fishing Vessel Admit Racial Slurs are Routine but Allow Retaliation Against Plaintiff for Reporting Harassment

Friedman & Houlding LLP filed a racial harassment and retaliation lawsuit on behalf of Gil Elie against his former employers, North Star Fishing Co., Glacier Fish Co., and Cape Horn Vessel.

Mr. Elie, who is African American, alleges in his Complaint that while fishing in the Bering Sea aboard Defendants’ vessel the F/T Cape Horn, his Latino supervisor repeatedly referred to him as  “mayate,” a derogatory Spanish slur for African Americans. Mr. Elie reported his supervisor’s use of racial slurs to Defendants’ management team, whose reaction, Elie alleges, was to admit that the manager himself had been referred to as a vulgar anti-Asian slur and to suggest that Elie respond by calling his Latino supervisor a “stupid pendejo.”  Following his complaint, he was immediately retaliated against and subjected to increasingly hostile harassment.

The environment aboard the vessel made the mistreatment against Mr. Elie uniquely severe. He was in the middle of the ocean, his contact with the outside world was limited to spotty internet connections, and the vessel was not just his place of employment, it was also his temporary home. There was simply no escape for Mr. Elie, and his Complaint alleges that Defendants played on these circumstances to amplify the abuse.

Mr. Elie has several audio and video recordings, which directly support his allegations. For example, Mr. Elie recorded his complaint to the First Mate and human resources about his supervisor’s use of racial slurs where they acknowledged that racial slurs and other “shocking” language were commonplace aboard the vessel:

First Mate: What did he say?

Plaintiff: Mayate. It’s Spanish- . . . Spanish for the N-word.

***

Plaintiff: It’s not the first time either.

First Mate: Yeah, but I think… these guys call each other the N…

Plaintiff (00:58): No, it was made towards me.

First Mate: I know, but they-

Plaintiff (01:01): It was a directed comment towards me.

First Mate: These- these guys talk to each other and, use that… it’s- it’s, like-

***

First Mate: Yeah, I know. You know what, these guys fucking call me chink sometimes too.

Human Resources: It’s a different- it’s a different world. You should hear the shit they call me, like, and it- and it- it’s, like, it’s shocking-

First Mate: They call an officer on the boat chink sometimes, you know? Just when they’re joking around, you know? Like, what the fuck.

Human Resources: It’s a really different environment, like, it’s… it’s, yeah, it’s, like, a really different environment.

***

First Mate:  Why don’t you call him a pendejo or something?

Plaintiff:  ’cause I’m not- no way, like, I’m not gonna stoop that low, like, I’m trying to do my fucking job, you know what I mean? Make my money, get the fuck out of here and come back
again, like-

First Mate:  Come on. Just, fucking next time if he says something like that, “Ay, stupid pendejo.” Nah, I’m kidding.

Human Resources: (laughs).

As Mr. Elie’s lawsuit alleges, within hours of his complaint, his supervisor changed his work schedule and human resources then told him he was no longer allowed on the upper deck of the vessel. Neither change protected Mr. Elie from his harassing supervisor. Quite the opposite. His supervisor intensified the harassment. Two days after Mr. Elie first complained of racial slurs, his supervisor assaulted him by throwing fish at him, several of which hit him in the face and chest. Mr. Elie reported the assault to human resources. Rather than helping him, the representative offered that the reason Mr. Elie was being mistreated was because he was “talking back” and suggested that his “character” was in question following his complaint.

The next day, the Captain of the vessel issued Mr. Elie written discipline for allegedly being insubordinate to his harassing supervisor. When Mr. Elie refused to sign the disciplinary paperwork, his supervisor fired him. For the next several weeks, Mr. Elie was trapped aboard the vessel while crewmembers and Defendant’s management team took almost every opportunity to torment him.

Defendants would not allow Mr. Elie to eat the hot food that was prepared for the crew. Instead, he was offered bread, fruit, or candy bars, and the occasional pre-plated meals, which were at times noticeably rancid. His clean laundry was repeatedly placed beside a filthy trash can, crew members verbally taunted and left threatening messages for him, and the Captain told him on several occasions that he would not receive any money for the time he worked since Defendants were deducting daily room and board from his earnings, and that he should have just “played by the rules.”

When Mr. Elie reported to the Captain that he was being denied meals, the Captain told him that he was only allowed to eat the pre-plated meals and said: “I have all your activities being monitored.” The next time Mr. Elie went to the dining room, he found his pre-plated meal in the garbage. On another occasion, when Mr. Elie attempted to serve himself some hot food, the cook reported to the Captain that Mr. Elie was “stealing food.” The Captain confronted Mr. Elie and threatened to “restrain” him and leave him in his room.

Mr. Elie continued to try to get assistance from members of Defendants’ management team. He sent an email to a corporate Vessel Recruiter and explained that he had been  subjected to racial slurs aboard the vessel, he reported the slurs, and that following his complaints he had been assaulted, fired, denied meals, and subjected to other intimidating and threatening mistreatment. No one responded. When Mr. Elie was finally able to arrange a phone call with a different corporate Vessel Recruiter, she told him that he did not have enough evidence to support his complaint that his supervisor used racial slurs. However, when Plaintiff later informed her that he had audio and video evidence of harassment and retaliation, including the Captain’s threats to restrain him, the Vessel Recruiter told Mr. Elie that she did not want to see the evidence because she believed it was gathered against company policy.

It was clear to Mr. Elie that Defendants had no intention of protecting him. He felt like a prisoner aboard the vessel and feared for his physical safety as the mistreatment was drastically escalating. He regularly confined himself to his room, often keeping his lights off and sneaking out when it appeared no other crewmembers were around to retrieve water, snacks, or to use the restroom. Even while Mr. Elie was in his room, crewmembers would taunt him by standing outside his door and speaking negatively about him.

The experience had a profound impact on Mr. Elie. He slipped into deep depression and continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his experience working aboard Defendants’ vessel. He did everything he could under the circumstances to try to protect himself and alert Defendants to the conditions aboard the vessel. Instead of helping him, Defendants punished him for speaking up. Even after he was back on land and away from his abusers, Defendants Vessel Recruiter continued to engage in unlawful conduct by providing a negative employment reference full of false and misleading information about Mr. Elie’s employment on the F/T Cape Horn.

Friedman & Houlding LLP is working with Mr. Elie to help vindicate Defendants’ violations of his civil rights and to seek compensation for the emotional and financial injuries that Defendants caused him. Mr. Elie’s lawsuit is currently pending in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, and can be read in its entirety, here.

 

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