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VOL. 123 | NO. 30 | Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Former Employees Sue Cargill For $3M in Damages

By Rosalind Guy

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TO THE COURTHOUSE: Former Cargill Inc. employees Vincent Mickens, Tomeka Winston, Patricia Coburn, Connie Seay and Francois Johnson are suing the company for hazardous work environment, racial discrimination and retaliation. Not shown are Cornell Trotter, Avery Doss, Terry Lewis and Keith Howard. -- Photo By Rosalind Guy

A group of former and current Cargill Inc. employees has filed a $3 million federal lawsuit against the Minneapolis, Minn.-based company claiming they've been subjected to a hazardous work environment, racial discrimination and retaliation.

The suit also names as defendants local Cargill management team members Martin Crowder, Tim Campbell, Joe Sparks and Amanda Jordan.

Vincent Mickens, Francois Johnson, Cornell Trotter, Avery Doss, Patricia Coburn, Terry Lewis, Keith Howard, Connie Seay and Tomeka Winston filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at the end of January, according to The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

They filed the lawsuit pro se, which means they will be serving as their own attorneys in the case. Before filing the suit, all the plaintiffs filed complaints with the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"Plaintiffs received individually a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC dated Oct. 31, 2007, upon completion of the EEOC investigation, which concluded violations of Title VII," the lawsuit states.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Faye Williams, EEOC investigating attorney, said the agency is prohibited by a statue from title VII from releasing information related to charges filed with the agency.

David Feider, Cargill director of media relations, said it's Cargill's policy not to comment on pending litigation. However, he stressed Cargill is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate.

A federal lawsuit, which was later dismissed, also was filed against Continental Grain Co. in June 1999. That lawsuit also involved job discrimination accusations.

Cargill Inc. bought New York-based Continental Grain in July 1999, a company that Johnson also worked for. Right before the sale was completed, Continental had begun clearing out asbestos at the facility at 1387 N. Second St. in Memphis.

But after the company changed hands, the plaintiffs allege Cargill did not complete the asbestos removal.

"The defendant knew of the hazardous conditions since acquiring this section of what was formerly Continental Grain," the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit goes on to say that an area of the facility cleared by General Construction Services in November 2000 was found to be clear of asbestos by a Tennessee Occupational Safety & Health Administration (TOSHA) investigator.

"Some six years later, as exposure conditions remained, in September 2006, a representative from the corporate office visited what is referred to as the Memphis Elevator and inquired about the status of certain tile in the elevator. Unaware of the alleged removal by General Construction Services, an asbestos sign was posted immediately after the representative noticed the disturbed floor tile," the suit states.

The sign said: "This area contains asbestos insulation or other asbestos containing material," according to the suit.

Around that time, as union stewards representing the other employees, Johnson and Mickens began asking questions about the presence of the asbestos and what it meant to the employees working in the area - an area in which only black employees work, they said.

Mickens and Johnson said that instead of having their concerns addressed, they were told that for five years they'd been receiving asbestos training, though management never revealed how obtaining asbestos training would deter the effects of being exposed to asbestos for six years.

Though employees were told they'd received asbestos training, they denied ever having such training.

"In one of the union meetings that I had," Mickens said, "it was myself, Avery Doss, Martin Crowder (Cargill supervisor) and Tim Campbell (Cargill operations manager). And they produced this document, because they said you're trained on asbestos every year, and I don't ever recall having asbestos training, and I asked Avery and he said the same thing.

"And they popped out this one piece of paper and it showed all of our signatures, but it had been altered as if they doctored it and so that made us suspicious about signing it."

As a result of not signing the paper, Mickens and Johnson were suspended, they both said.

Mickens and Johnson said they were the only ones who refused to sign the paper, which they believe was a ruse to show they'd received asbestos training when they hadn't.

At one point, the employees said they were even asked to sign papers with no heading, no date or any identifying information.

"We stopped signing because if I'm asking to see information that's dating back all those years and you said that we had it and then you can't prove it, and then the one you show me is doctored," Johnson said. "So, at that point we just stopped filling them out and putting our name on them, because with a computer and scanner you can do miracles. So, we said, 'No, we're not going to sign anymore.' Whenever we sign off on a document asked for a copy, they said, 'That's for our records, not yours."

Some employees did sign the papers, though they said they did so under duress.

"They told us before they even came to the meeting that if we didn't sign the papers, something would happen," said Coburn. "They told us we could just go home."

So far Cargill has not entered an official response to the lawsuit.

While expressing fear that the company will retaliate against the employees for filing the suit, Mickens said they're just waiting to see what will happen next.

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