GE Loses Bid to Toss Race Bias Action

By Dietrich Knauth

Law360, New York (November 03, 2010) -- General Electric Co. and a subsidiary have lost a bid for summary judgment in a race discrimination suit brought by a crew of black industrial contractors who said they were fired in retaliation after complaining about an abusive supervisor.

Judge Kristi K. DuBose of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama ruled Tuesday that the 60 workers named in the suit had raised enough evidence for a jury to find that GE and subsidiary BHA Group Holdings Inc. severed ties with them because they complained about discrimination from a BHA supervisor.

The workers filed the suit in August 2008, alleging that a BHA supervisor "combined his racial contempt with the power given to him by defendants to fire and deny work to plaintiffs," according to the complaint.

The workers' protests about the employee "fell on deaf ears" and BHA management eventually decided to stop hiring the crew altogether, the complaint said.

The workers were employed by Lacy Enterprises LLC, which provided workers to BHA for cleaning jobs contracted by industrial clients including Buzzi Unicem USA Inc. and Alcoa Inc. The Lacy Enterprises crew mostly worked as baghouse cleaners, cleaning and replacing fabric filters in industrial machinery, according to the judge's Tuesday opinion.

After GE acquired BHA in 2004, Lacy Enterprises contracted directly with GE, which continued to operate BHA as an independent subsidiary, the opinion said.

The alleged abuse happened during two jobs supervised by a BHA employee in August 2006 and February 2007, the opinion said. In the 2006 job, the supervisor sent some of the crew home and told them not to come back, which prompted Ray Lacy, the head of the work crew, to complain to BHA management that the supervisor was verbally abusing his crew.

According to the opinion, Lacy told BHA management that the supervisor displayed a racist attitude "from day one" and that "the men resent it very much since he doesn't hide his views on working blacks."

The complaints were disregarded, and after Lacy raised similar concerns in February 2007, BHA decided to stop employing the crew for baghouse work, the opinion said.

In their joint motion for summary judgment, filed in May, GE and BHA tried to toss the claims by arguing that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue because they were not employees of GE or BHA, and that the company had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for ending the relationship with the crew.

In denying the motion, Judge DuBose ruled that a reasonable jury could find that BHA and Lacy Enterprises were joint employers. The BHA supervisor frequently instructed and disciplined Lacy Enterprises crew members, set work schedules and break times, and had the power to extend the crew's workday up to 16 hours, according to the opinion.

The workers had also raised an issue of fact about GE and BHA's stated reasons for ending their employment, the judge said.

In a brief supporting its motion for judgment, BHA had said that it stopped employing the crew because their unprofessional behavior was hurting BHA's relationship with its customers, and because a recession-fueled drop-off in its baghouse business in 2007 limited available work.

But the judge said that internal communications among BHA staff suggested that the company was left scrambling to fill a void left by the Lacy Enterprises crew and that BHA saw only a slight decline in baghouse cleaning revenue from 2006 to 2007. This evidence cast enough doubt on stated reasons that they could be disbelieved by a reasonable jury, the opinion said.

The complaint was initially filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and was removed to Alabama, where the alleged discrimination took place, in May of 2009.

"GE's position is that these claims are without merit, and will continue to vigorously defend itself in this matter," GE spokeswoman Anne Eisele said Wednesday.

Joshua Friedman, who represents the plaintiffs, said that the workers were the "front lines" of the new green economy, because they remove hazardous industrial waste, including caustic lye and carbon black.

Although he said he was heartened by the fact that the judge denied the motion in its entirety, Friedman doesn't expect GE to "roll over," because the company is "extremely concerned about publicity," Friedman said.

"Not only is the work toxic, the allegations are toxic," Friedman said Wednesday.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Law Offices of Joshua Friedman.

Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker LLP represents GE and BHA.

The case is Abney et al. v. General Electric Co. et al., case number 1:09-cv-00266, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.