Trapped in the Whirlpool: Company in Hot Water Over Race Case

On Behalf of | February 1, 2010 | News

Whirlpool Corp. is in more hot water for alleged racial discrimination at a Tennessee facility that’s landed the company in court three times in the last year — twice before the same federal appellate court — and cost it more than $1 million in damages.

Most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit on Jan. 26 revived a six-year-old lawsuit filed by three African-American workers who allege they were subjected to daily verbal abuse and a hostile working environment at a now-defunct facility in La Vergne, Tenn.

In reversing rulings of summary judgment, the court in Armstrong v. Whirlpool held that the plaintiffs’ allegations that “racial harassment was so severe and pervasive” deserved to be heard by a jury. The court, however, upheld a summary judgment ruling involving retaliation claims and dismissed the discrimination claims of two other plaintiffs.

The latest ruling comes almost 11 months after the 6th Circuit ruled in favor of three white workers at the same Whirlpool plant who claimed that they were retaliated against because they were friendly with black co-workers, and stuck up for them in the face of racial hostility.

In that case, Barrett v. Whirlpool, the court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids that kind of associational discrimination and sent the case back to the trial court. A jury later ended up ruling in favor of Whirlpool.

The La Vergne facility also proved costly for Whirlpool last month, when the company was ordered by a federal judge to pay more than $1 million to an African-American employee who was persistently harassed by a white male co-worker and physically assaulted. The case was Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Freeman.

Plaintiffs attorney David Sanford of Washington’s Sanford Wittels & Heisler, who handled both lawsuits against Whirlpool in the 6th Circuit, believes the court has sent a message loud and clear. “The message is ‘Look, these are serious allegations. There’s powerful testimony in the record. And ultimately, this should be in the hands of a jury,’ ” said Sanford, who contends that Whirlpool repeatedly “turned a blind eye” to the plaintiffs’ complaints. “What’s most egregious about this case is that Whirlpool was put on notice about it time and time again, and did nothing about it.”

Sanford predicted that his latest case will prevail before a jury. “We now have three African-Americans who chronicle in great detail the hostile work environment that they suffered for years,” he said. “They talk about racial graffiti, racially hostile comments, racial jokes in the workplace. … It takes you back a hundred years.”

Keith Hult and Adam Wit of the Chicago office of Littler Mendelson, who represented Whirlpool in the 6th Circuit cases, were unavailable for comment. Jill Saletta, director of external communications at Whirlpool, responded, “We do not comment on pending litigation.”

According to court documents, Whirlpool argued in the latest case that “the plaintiffs had failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact that they were subjected to an objectively hostile work environment, and alternatively, had failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to Whirlpool’s liability for the plaintiffs’ work environment.”

According to the company’s web site, “Diversity … is a strategic cornerstone at Whirlpool Corporation. Employees are given the opportunity to participate in interactive workshops to discover the power of inclusion and the necessity for a diverse workforce.”