In 2008, Christopher Renfro, a black former employee of anti-uglies retailer American Apparel, sued the company for racial discrimination, alleging that a coworker had repeatedly called him "nigger." Finally, the suit has been settled. In Renfro's favor.
Yesterday, Renfro's attorney informed us that an arbitrator in California had awarded Renfro more than $300,000 in the case. American Apparel's attorney dismissed his complaint as a case of a coworker singing along with rap lyrics, and says that the award is swelled mostly by attorney's fees.
Here are the full statements from both sides. First, from Christopher Renfro's attorney Barbara Figari:
An arbitrator in Oakland, California found in favor of a former American Apparel employee who sued the company after his supervisor racially harassed him by repeatedly calling him a "nigger." The Plaintiff, Christopher Renfro, claimed that his supervisor, Sean Alonzo – who reports directly to CEO Dov Charney – called him a "nigger" while on a business trip to renovate American Apparel stores. Both in deposition and during the arbitration, Mr. Alonzo admitted to using the word "nigger" but tried to say that he was only singing along to music. American Apparel gave Mr. Alonzo a raise just days after supposedly "disciplining" him for the conduct. The arbitrator found that Mr. Alonzo subjected Mr. Renfro to severe racial harassment and ordered American Apparel to pay a total of $342,919.95 for damages, costs and attorney's fees.
The Plaintiff, Christopher Renfro began his employment with American Apparel on December 7, 2006, and was employed at the San Francisco Haight Street store designing the lighting and floor displays to attract customers, among other duties. Over time, Mr. Renfro became involved in the revamping of retail operations elsewhere, at American Apparel locations in various parts of the U.S. Mr. Renfro was described as a "creative, innovative and dedicated" employee who "was a pleasure to work with."
Mr. Alonzo has worked for American Apparel since 2005. In 2007, he was American Apparel's principal retail development specialist, and reported directly to its Chief Executive Officer, Dov Charney. Mr. Alonzo was introduced to the company by his sister, Iris Alonzo, who serves as American Apparel's Creative Director and also reports directly to Mr. Charney.
In June 2007, American Apparel flew Mr. Renfro to Tennessee, where he and other employees renovated both the Nashville and Memphis American Apparel stores. On this trip, Mr. Renfro was supervised by Mr. Alonzo. On the night of June 29, 2007, Mr. Alonzo repeatedly referred to Mr. Renfro as a "nigger" in front of other employees.
Mr. Renfro complained to American Apparel about Mr. Alonzo's conduct, and the company's Director of Human Resources, Kristina Moreno, spoke to Mr. Alonzo in approximately July of 2007. Mr. Alonzo admitted to Ms. Moreno that he had used the word "nigger," but American Apparel did not "discipline" Mr. Alonzo until the possibility of litigation arose in October 2007. At that time, American Apparel issued Mr. Alonzo a "final written warning" – but also gave Mr. Alonzo a raise two days later. Just weeks later, Mr. Alonzo was given an additional bonus, and he continues to work for American Apparel at the present time.
The arbitrator found, among other items, that Mr. Alonzo himself "demonstrated not only offensive racial hostility, but also a confused and persistent attempt to avoid blame for obvious wrongdoing," and imposed liability against both Mr. Alonzo and American Apparel.
And American Apparel's reply, from Joyce Crucillo, the company's chief litigation counsel:
Mr. Renfro's discrimination claim against American Apparel was based on a single evening involving a group of co-workers having after-hour drinks on famous Beale Street, Memphis. During this single outing, one of Mr. Renfro's co-workers sang along to rap music containing the "n" word which was playing at the various clubs the group visited that night. There was no intent to discriminate or offend Mr. Renfro. Contrary to Mr. Renfro's attorneys' press release, the arbitrator specifically acknowledged that American Apparel acted swiftly by sternly disciplining the employee within a few days after Mr. Renfro reported the incident to Human Resource, which was later memorialized in writing through a final written warning. The Arbitrator also rejected Mr. Renfro's claim of wrongful constructive discharge and found that Mr. Renfro voluntarily resigned from American Apparel for reasons having nothing to do with his claim of discrimination.
Mr. Renfro subsequently filed suit against American Apparel, seeking over $1,000,000 in damages. In the end, the Arbitrator awarded Mr. Renfro $32,500. The Arbitrator also awarded Mr. Renfro's attorneys $310,000, under California law which entitles a prevailing plaintiff their attorneys fees and costs, despite the fact that Mr. Renfro received a relatively modest result in comparison to his original claim for over $1,000,000. American Apparel has insurance coverage for the arbitrator's award, subject to an ordinary deductible.
American Apparel is committed to a discrimination free workplace and has a zero tolerance policy towards any acts of discrimination. Mr. Renfro's claim of racial discrimination is the first and only claim of racial discrimination made by the Company's 10,000+ employees.