Race Bias Suit Hits Keyfood

(J. Zambia Browne. NY Amsterdam News. June 6, 2002) – In a lawsuit filed under New York City’s Human Rights Law, plaintiffs Shondelle Northe, Nancy Mena and Gina Healy have released audio tapes con-firming their allegations of racism and discrimination against executives of New York’s Key Food Stores Co-operative Inc.

The plaintiffs’ lawsuit, which seeks damages of $45 million, alleges that Key Food executives have long used race as a factor in hiring and that racial hostility and bias are commonplace at the company’s main office.

The three plaintiffs, along with their attorney, Marc A. Rapaport, seem determined to send a strong message to Key Food that racial discrimination in the workplace will not be tolerated.

The audio tapes released by the plaintiffs contain damaging tape-recorded conversations, including a conversation in which an alleged top management official is heard using disparaging and insulting remarks about Black applicants, especially women.

On the tape, Richard Grenard, a Key Food executive who oversees produce purchasing for the company, is allegedly heard questioning whether a particular applicant from Jamaica was “a f-king nigger.” Grenard is also heard asking whether the applicant had dreadlocks and whether she smelled.

Plaintiff Nancy Mena was employed as an accounts payable clerk at the company’s main office until she was no longer able to endure the ongoing harassment, intimidation and racial insults, which included, according to the complaint, being called “Aunt Jemima” by her supervisor. She called it quits last February after work-ing at the company for approximately two years.

In addition, the plaintiffs charged that Grenard is also fond of playing the gender card, creating an unpleasant environment for female employees, irrespective of skin color.

Rapaport, who filed the law-suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, said that although officials at Key Food have heard the evidence on tape, they have decided to remain steadfast in their defense of Grenard and others.”Instead of confronting the situation and making efforts to stem the problem,” Rapaport declared, “management is trying to stonewall the case and use every conceivable tactic to pre-vent the case from going to trial.”

He added that this kind of conduct is unacceptable. “Our goal is to send a loud and clear message to Key Food that its racist behavior won’t be tolerated,” Rapaport continued:

Key Food, which does more than $400 million of business annually in the city’s African-American and Latino communities, unlocks buying power for independent New York grocers. Founded in 1933, the co-op helps more than 110 independently owned food retailers in the metropolitan area compete with major supermarket chains by pooling buying power.

When contacted for comment, Key Food referred us to its attorneys at the law firm of Fulbright and Jaworski, who did not return repeated telephone calls.

Key Food has vehemently denied the allegations and even filed a motion to have them dismissed, but was rejected by Judge Herbert Kramer, who apparently found some validity to the charges and wants the case to proceed.

In his ruling, Kramer referred to numerous derogatory comments of an explicit sexual nature made against Healy, one of plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“Healy was subjected to intimidation, ridicule and insult at the job, and such claims make out a cause of action for hostile work environment,” Kramer said.

He said that “an employer is subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate authority over the employee.”

The judge expressed concern that Key Food did not take action to remedy the situation when repeated complaints were made by some of the victims.

“The law is violated when the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment,” Kramer ruled.

Cynthia Davis, director the Crisis Division at the National Action Network, headed by the Rev. A1 Sharpton, said she has been working with Rapaport since he brought the matter to the attention of the network. Davis said she is appalled that a firm like Key Food would be aware of the situation and the comments made on tape by one of its officials and do nothing about it.

“No other race of people with the exception of Black folks would sit idle and allow such a thing to happen. We must stop accepting this kind of behavior from corporations while we continue to give them our money,” Davis declared.

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