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Last Friday, the California Civil Rights Law Group – in partnership with The Armstrong Law Firm – filed a lawsuit in Alameda County on behalf of a Livermore-based employee who claims he was subjected to a steady stream of racial harassment over the course of three years at Vulcan Materials Co. Gordon Tillman, who is African American, alleges that he made several complaints to management at Vulcan about harassment by his supervisor but that the company did nothing until he reported his complaint to the company’s national office in Birmingham, Alabama. At which point the supervisor was finally terminated.
According to the lawsuit, Tillman’s former supervisor Shawn Geaney made racist comments and engaged in other racially charged behavior towards Tillman starting as far back as 2010. The complaint details a few different incidents when Tillman was harassed, including one in which Geaney allegedly told him that his skin was too dark to pass the “paper bag test” – a reference to the Jim Crow-era custom of determining if African Americans were considered white enough for acceptance to social events. Geaney – who was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit – also allegedly kept a hangman’s noose at the job site where Tillman worked. The lawsuit claims that at one point, Geaney referred to the noose and bragged that he knew how to tie the perfect noose with six or seven knots.
Geaney is also accused of throwing rocks at Tillman, spraying water at him, calling him “gordo uva negra” (Spanish for “fat black grape”), and comparing him and other African Americans to monkeys by suggesting that he should remove his shoes and socks to climb a ladder because “that’s what…you guys do.”
When Tillman complained to management about the latter incident and provided them with witnesses, Vulcan’s plant manager suspended Geaney for one day for “bad language,” according to the suit. After Geaney returned from his suspension, Tillman alleges that Geaney made violent threats, which prompted Tillman to complain again to the plant manager. However, instead of addressing his complaint, the lawsuit states that the plant manager told Tillman that he was also at fault, which prompted Tillman to escalate his complaint to Vulcan’s national office. Shortly thereafter, Geaney was terminated, the suit states.
Even following Geaney’s termination, Tillman claims that he was subjected to retaliation at work. According to the complaint, Tillman was ostracized by his coworkers and managers in response to his complaint.
Responding to the filing, Vulcan issued the following statement when it spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle:
We are committed to maintaining a work environment that is free from unlawful harassment and discrimination by any co-worker, supervisor or other person.
Geaney, on the other hand, could not be reached for his response to the allegations, according to the Chronicle. The newspaper also contacted our co-counsel Kelly Armstrong after the suit was filed. “Race harassment unfortunately appears alive and well in the 21st century – even in the Bay Area,” she said.
In addition to unspecified damages, including punitive damages, Tillman is also seeking an injunction against Vulcan prohibiting the company from future discrimination.