Racist talk at home health care agency will be subject of trial

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in downtown Atlanta. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in downtown Atlanta. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The federal appeals court in Atlanta has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by an African-American woman who says she endured racist comments from her coworkers on an almost daily basis, including one who allegedly called her “a dumb black (racial slur).”

The ruling, issued Monday by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, allows Brenda Smelter’s lawsuit to go to trial against Southern Home Care Services, which sends caregivers to the homes of clients with medical needs. In mid-2013, Smelter began working in the company’s Perry office as a customer service supervisor and was the only black employee there.

Almost from the start, Smelter struggled with Southern Home’s computer system and had difficulty coordinating with caregivers, according to court records.

But Smelter claimed her coworkers frequently made racist comments.

For example, Smelter said, one colleague said black men were “lazy” and “the scum of the earth” and that President Barack Obama’s big ears made him “look like a monkey.” Another coworker, speaking of African-Americans, said she wished she could “send them all back … to Africa,” Smelter claimed.

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On Sept. 9, 2013, Smelter got into an argument with a supervisor after a caregiver reported that Smelter had once again failed to notify her about a client’s schedule change, the opinion said. During the dispute, the supervisor told Smelter to “get out of my office … you dumb black (racial slur),” Smelter said.

Smelter was fired later that day. She filed suit in 2014, alleging the company fired her because she’s black, allowed a hostile workplace environment to exist in the Perry office and retaliated against her for reporting her coworkers’ racist remarks.

Smelter’s coworkers denied making the remarks, and, in court filings, the company said Smelter never complained that she heard coworkers allegedly making racist comments until after she was fired. Smelter claimed she reported those comments to her supervisor shortly before she was fired.

On Monday, the 11th Circuit upheld decisions by U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams in Macon that dismissed Smelter’s race discrimination and retaliation claims. But the court allowed the hostile workplace claim to go to trial.

If true, Smelter’s claims about her coworkers “involved obvious racial slurs conveying highly offensive derogatory stereotypes of black people,” Judge Jill Pryor wrote for the majority. Also, because of the “daily frequency and extreme severity of the harassment,” Smelter’s workplace claim should be heard by a jury, said the opinion, joined by Judge Bill Pryor and Senior Judge Lanier Anderson.

The court found that Smelter failed to prove that Southern Home’s stated, and nondiscriminatory, reason for firing her — that she was a substandard employee — was unworthy of belief. The same held true for her retaliation claim, the court said.

Decatur attorney Eleanor Attwood, who represents Smelter, said she was pleased with the “well reasoned and well written” ruling that allows the racial harassment claim to go forward. “We look forward to presenting Ms. Smelter’s facts to a jury,” Attwood said.