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Four years on, race discrimination case against Newport News Industrial still moving forward

NEWPORT NEWS — It’s been more than three years since 37 workers sued Newport News Industrial — an arm of Newport News Shipbuilding — accusing it of wide-ranging racial discrimination.

Now, the federal lawsuit is moving forward, with the issues and number of workers narrowing down.

U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen has tossed nearly all of the claims that black workers were treated differently than whites in terms of pay, promotion and training. But another crucial aspect of the case — that the black workers were subject to a hostile work environment — is still largely alive.

“A large number of our plaintiffs will have their day in court, and we’re happy and gratified about that,” said Rebecca Houlding, a partner with the New York law firm of Friedman and Houlding that’s representing the workers.

A trial date should be set soon, she said.

Of the original 37 plaintiffs, Houlding said, 22 are still in the case. That number could grow, since the plaintiffs’ lawyers are asking Wright Allen to change her mind about eight of the 15 workers she has tossed from the litigation.

Newport News Industrial is a division of Newport News Shipbuilding, which in turn is a unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, a publicly traded company based in Newport News. NNI, as it’s often referred to, is located in an industrial park on Enterprise Drive, off Warwick Boulevard near Fort Eustis.

Founded in 1965, the company provides a range of work for nuclear power plants in the electrical generation industry, including on tanks, piping and pressure systems. It uses many welders, pipefitters, electricians and other laborers.

Jill Moenius, an attorney with the Kansas City law firm representing NNI, declined to comment Thursday. Duane Bourne, a spokesman for Newport News Shipbuilding, also declined to talk about the case, citing the pending litigation.

Initially filed by eight workers in September 2014, the lawsuit contends that Newport News Industrial subjected them to a hostile work environment and denied them promotions and pay increases. Amended complaints were filed in early 2015, adding more defendants and details.

The suit asks for unspecified damages “to be determined by the jury at the time of trial.”

The complaint paints a picture of a workplace where white employees are coddled and take long breaks, while black employees are often mocked and laughed at — including with racial epithets and imagery — and ordered to do the plant’s most difficult and dirtiest work.

For example, the suit alleged that black workers are expected to sit "on the floor or on buckets" during the day, while white employees doing similar work get chairs. The suit said that black workers were often reprimanded for talking while white workers could talk to each other and take cell phone calls.

In August 2014, the complaint says, a white supervisor manipulated a yellow rope in his hand in front of a black employee, while another white colleague looked on laughing.

According to the lawsuit, the black worker asked, “OK, so what is that for?” and the boss replied, “Um … you know what it’s for.” The same supervisor had “expressed his appreciation of slavery” and once called temporary plant closures “plantation” shutdowns, the suit says.

When one worker complained, the complaint says, he was soon assigned to “sweep floors or clean metal for 10 hours straight.”

The complaint also alleges that on another occasion, a white worker texted a link to a YouTube video to a black worker, asking what he thought. The video is of a large all-white crowd of dancing young people. A racially offensive song was apparently dubbed over the video to make it appear that they are dancing happily to the song.

A federal magistrate judge, Lawrence R. Leonard, reviewed thousands of pages of briefs and exhibits before recommending to Wright Allen that most of the claims on pay, promotion, overtime and training disparities be thrown out.

But Leonard said the hostile work environment claims should mostly stand, despite NNI’s argument that the problems experienced by black workers were, in the judge’s words, “merely the type of petty annoyances or rudeness one might expect in any work environment.”

Whether the behavior constituted a hostile work environment, Leonard said, should be decided by a jury.

Wright Allen accepted most of Leonard’s recommendations, though she tossed some additional workers based on later motions from the company and added one, bringing the total remaining to 22.