Race discrimination suit against NPR gets go-ahead in court

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April Simpson/Current

An employment discrimination lawsuit against NPR will proceed after a federal judge described the nonprofit’s motion to dismiss the complaint as “unpersuasive” Friday, largely rejecting its request.

Plaintiff Zandile Mkwanazi, who is African American, claimed in a complaint filed in June that NPR and his supervisor discriminated against him on the basis of race, subjected him to a hostile work environment through the eight months he was employed and retaliated against him for reporting harassment.

Mkwanazi alleged that Brett Gerringer, his white supervisor, referred to him as “boy” starting from Mkwanazi’s first day on the job as a technician in NPR’s Network Operations Center March 3, 2019. Mkwanazi alleged that he pulled Gerringer aside later that day to explain the term is offensive to African American people because of negative historical connotations, yet he claimed Gerringer continued to refer to him as “boy” through his employment at NPR.

The complaint also alleged that Jay Herrera, a Latino man and another NOC technician, was assigned to familiarize Mkwanazi with NPR’s procedures but “largely left him to his own devices” and “behaved aggressively,” contributing to a hostile work environment.

NPR filed a motion to dismiss the civil complaint in August, pointing to prior rulings that name-calling did not establish a hostile work environment. It argued that Mkwanazi had failed to meet the minimal threshold under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on protected traits such as race, religion and sex.

Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell wrote in Friday’s opinion that NPR was “off-base” to suggest Gerringer’s repeated use of “boy” amounts to no more than name-calling that cannot be covered by the District’s antidiscrimination law.

“The word when used to refer to an African American man is an offensive, racist slur with its origins in the white supremacy of slavery and Jim Crow,” Howell wrote.

NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara said that she could not comment on Mkwanazi’s allegations, citing the ongoing legal proceedings.

“What we can say is that we are committed to a safe and respectful workplace where everyone can do their best work,” Lara said. “To support this, we have a strong system of reporting channels available to staff to raise complaints.”

In addition to Mkwanazi’s first count accusing NPR of race-based discrimination, his complaint included a second count alleging NPR had retaliated against him for reporting these acts of discrimination and harassment.

The complaint alleged that Herrera refused to properly supervise Mkwanazi during a May 2019 incident involving Radio Bilingüe, for which NPR provides satellite services. The Spanish-language network experienced an audio outage and remained off the air for more than 16 hours. Mkwanazi claimed that his inexperience hindered him from solving the problem on his own and that he was reluctant to ask Herrera for assistance since Herrera had previously said to “not bother him with any questions.”

The collective bargaining agreement that governs discipline of NPR’s members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians union dictates progressive steps of a verbal warning followed by written warning, suspension and discharge. When Gerringer issued a written warning in September 2019 for a separate incident involving Mkwanazi’s emailing incorrect information to NPR customers, Mkwanazi asked why he had skipped a verbal warning.

Mkwanazi alleged that Gerringer claimed to have issued a verbal warning for the May incident during a performance review in July. Mkwanazi then requested his personnel file from human resources and claimed it contained no note of a verbal warning. He stated that he feared requesting the file from human resources could result in retaliation and that “his white colleagues were not disciplined for the same or more severe offenses.”

Mkwanazi’s complaint pointed to two white employees who had caused technical failures and had not been reprimanded with verbal warnings. The complaint noted that another African American employee had received a written warning for a similar offense.

NPR’s motion to dismiss both counts hinged on its argument that the Labor Management Relations Act requires courts to use federal rules of law as opposed to state-level laws like the D.C. Human Rights Act in cases that rely on interpreting a collective bargaining agreement.

“The analysis of whether NPR acted properly will inevitably require the court to conduct an analysis of the [collective bargaining agreement] and what it permitted. Such analysis is precluded” by the Labor Management Relations Act, NPR’s attorneys wrote in the motion.

The judge remained unpersuaded, writing that NPR had “latched onto” Mkwanazi’s passing references to the collective bargaining agreement. She denied NPR’s motion to dismiss the counts with an exception: Mkwanazi’s retaliation claim in connection to the radio outage in May.

NPR’s motion to dismiss stated that union-represented employees may be disciplined or discharged for any reason during their probationary period, which Mkwanazi remained in throughout the duration of his employment from March 2019 until his firing Oct. 31, 2019. NPR pointed out that D.C. law requires employees to file discrimination claims within one year of any incident. Mkwanazi filed his complaint June 22, 2020, more than a year after the May 2019 incident.

Considering the timeline, the judge dismissed Mkwanazi’s retaliation claim. She also ordered NPR to file an answer to Mkwanazi’s remaining complaints by Dec. 14.

Mkwanazi is seeking over $75,000 in back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive relief, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, and pre- and post-judgment interest, according to court documents. He is represented by attorney David A. Branch, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Attorney M. Carter DeLorme of Jones Day, who is representing NPR, declined comment.

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