WASHINGTON – A Prince George’s County black man can sue his former employer for “forced termination” after a company supervisor reportedly used racial slurs and compared the man to a “dumb monkey,” a federal appeals court said.
The ruling by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reverses the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, which said James H. Spriggs could not sue under the Civil Rights Act of 1991 because he was not a contract employee with Diamond Auto Glass.
Attorneys for Spriggs hailed the appeals court ruling, which they said extends employment discrimination laws to cover at-will employees, like Spriggs.
“That ensures that the largest portion of the U.S. workforce is covered by civil rights laws,” Thomas Henderson, deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case.
An attorney for Diamond Auto Glass could not say Tuesday if the company would appeal the Thursday ruling.
“My clients will have to decide if they want to take it to the next level,” Angus Everton said.
He declined comment on Spriggs’ claims of racial harassment in the workplace.
“My client doesn’t agree with the things he’s alleged, but there’s always two sides to every story,” said Everton.
Spriggs claimed that the racial abuse by his supervisor, Ernest Stickell, started as soon as he went to work for the Diamond Auto Glass store in Forestville in 1993.
Besides using racial slurs, Spriggs’ attorneys said, Stickell showed Spriggs a picture of an orangutan to “remind him of who he was.”
Spriggs quit in 1995 but returned to Diamond Auto Glass in 1996 after the manager of the Forestville store asked him to return and promised to keep Stickell in line.
Instead of curbing his behavior, however, Spriggs’ attorneys claim that Stickell routinely brought guns to work and threatened to kill anyone who got him in trouble with his boss over racial issues.
Spriggs left Diamond again in February 1997, was lured back once more and left for good in March 1997.
He sued the company, its president and Stickell that summer, claiming that the work environment was so hostile that he had no choice but to quit.
The company argued that, even if Spriggs’ claims were true, he could not sue for damages under the Civil Rights Act of 1991 because he was not a contractual employee. It said he should have filed instead under Title VII, which would have limited him to collecting $250,000 in damages.
The district court agreed and threw out Spriggs’ case.
But the appellate court said that a “lack of an agreed-upon duration” of employment does not invalidate Spriggs’ underlying employment contract with Diamond Auto Glass. In fact, it noted that Maryland courts recognize at-will employment as contracts.
Spriggs’ attorneys said he plans to sue for $2 million, in part to compensate him for the “egregious” working conditions at Diamond Auto Glass. They also said that Spriggs, who had one of the highest sales volumes at Diamond Auto Glass, has not been able to find work with comparable pay and hours.
“This is just a really wild case, way out there beyond what I’ve ever seem, especially for this (Washington, D.C.) area,” said Vickie Fang, one of three attorneys representing Spriggs.