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$56K awarded to fired worker who complained about racist images

Posted by: Alejandra Matos under Businesses in hot water Updated: February 5, 2014 - 5:58 PM

An African-American restaurant worker who lost his job after complaining about racist images in his workplace was awarded $56,000 by a federal court in western Wisconsin. 

In 2010, Dion Miller arrived for his scheduled shift at Sparx Restaurant in Menomonie, Wis., and found a picture of black actor Gary Coleman taped to a cooler, along with a dollar bill with a noose around the neck of a black-faced George Washington. There were also swastikas and the image of a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood. 

Miller complained to several managers and was told the images had been posted by the managers themselves the night before as a “joke.” Less than a month later, Miller was fired for having “a bad attitude,” according to the complaint, filed on his behalf by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

In September 2013, a jury found Miller was fired with malice or reckless disregard of his federally protected rights. The jury awarded him $15,000 for emotional distress, and last week, U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb ordered that the restaurant’s owner, Northern Star Hospitality, pay Miller an additional $41,000 in back wages and interest. 

“Anti-discrimination efforts would come to a standstill if employees weren’t allowed to freely complain about racist and discriminatory conduct,” said John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Chicago district. “Employers who punish employees who do complain are following a self-destructive scenario and ought not to be surprised when the EEOC shows up.”

Sparx closed down soon after the EEOC sued the restaurant, and was replaced by a Denny’s franchise. The owner of Northern Star Hospitality, Chris Brekken, could not be reached for comment. 

The court also ordered training for Brekken and other managers. 

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