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A New York Custodian Advances His Case Alleging that a Coworker Called Him the Spanish Word for Monkey ‘All the Time’

The treatment of Black workers may have improved from, say, 50 years ago, but too many Black workers still face a wide array of brutal forms of discrimination and harassment on the job, ranging from racist paraphernalia like nooses and bananas to slurs like “monkey,” “gorilla,” or the N-word. No one should have to endure that. If you facing that at work, get in touch with an experienced New York City race discrimination lawyer to learn about the actions you can take.

M.S. alleged that he was one of those workers who dealt with that sort of toxic racial harassment. M.S. worked as a custodian for the New York City Department of Education for eight years, starting in 2008. For six of those years, the custodian periodically worked with S.M., a handyman for the department.

Allegedly, the handyman always addressed the custodian as “mono,” which is the Spanish word for monkey, and on one occasion, the custodian found a banana peel inside his mop bucket — a peel that the custodian believed the handyman placed in the bucket.

Those allegations were enough to give the custodian a viable discrimination claim. His assertions were enough for a “reasonable factfinder” (a/k/a a jury) to go on to find that the handyman subjected the custodian to repeated racial harassment. The custodian’s allegation that the handyman addressed him as “mono” “all the time” was enough to allow a jury potentially to find that the misconduct was pervasive, as is required by Title VII and was required by the New York State Human Rights Law before 2019.

The custodian’s success in avoiding summary judgment serves as an important reminder when it comes to claims where you need to establish that the alleged misconduct was pervasive. In these situations, the law does not require you to recount each individual time when discrimination or harassment occurred, nor do you necessarily have to offer “specific details about each incident.” In M.S.’s case, his assertion that the racist name-calling happened “all the time” was enough.

The Depressing Frequency of ‘Monkey’ Cases

Sadly, this kind of occurrence is far from unique. In Houston, Texas, a limousine service responded to its Black drivers’ request for time off from work to celebrate Juneteenth by scheduling multiple safety meetings for June 18th, 19th, and 20th, then retaining a “singing telegram” performer to perform at the meetings. The singing telegram performance in question involved a White woman in a gorilla suit who “sang, danced, touched employees, and sat in their laps. She did Tarzan yells and repeatedly referred in a suggestive manner to big black lips, big black butt, and bananas.” Allegedly, during the performance, a White assistant general manager leaned into one of the Black drivers and said, “Here’s your Juneteenth.

The jury in that case awarded the driver $50,000 in compensatory damages and $90,000 in punitive damages.

In Arizona, managers for the company that fueled aircraft at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport allegedly referred to a group of fuelers who were immigrants from Africa as “monkeys” on numerous occasions. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, comments included using “monkey” as a substitute for an African fueler’s name, asking “What are you doing here, monkeys?” and referring to the fuelers’ lunches as “monkey soup.”

The employer eventually paid $250,000 to settle the case.

Here in New York, an investigator for the Cybercrime and Identity Theft Bureau of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office alleged in 2020 that his boss called him a monkey on multiple occasions and referred to a group of Guyanese workers as “monkeys,” as well.

The investigator agreed to a settlement of the case last summer.

In 2017, New York City agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle a federal case alleging that a supervisor at the Department of Transportation’s Fleet Services unit engaged in heinous verbal discrimination. That supervisor, according to the U.S. Attorney, was a man to whom all Fleet Services workers reported and who “routinely and openly” used “monkey,” “gorilla,” and the N-word to describe Black workers.

If you’ve encountered similar discrimination and harassment at work, you may have remedies under the New York City Human Rights Law, New York State Human Rights Law, federal law, or all of them. To find out how best to address the discrimination and harassment you’ve faced, talk to the skilled New York race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our team is experienced in handling cases like these, so we can provide you with reliable advice on the best path forward. To find out more, contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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