By KATRINA A. GOGGINS
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A federal appeals court has revived a discrimination lawsuit brought by black employees who claim they worked in a racially hostile environment at a Nucor Steel mill in South Carolina, attorneys said Tuesday.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in an Aug. 7 decision that the case against the Charlotte-based manufacturer can go forward with class-action status. It has been sent back to federal district court and will be tried in Charleston, S.C.
"While this class certification doesn't mean they've won ... the decision is a victory," lead attorney Robert L. Wiggins Jr. said in a statement. "Being involved in this case as a plaintiff has taken courage, but these individuals believed that it was important to change the horrific situation at Nucor for all black employees, and not just themselves."
The lawsuit charged that racial slurs and monkey noises were broadcast over the radio system at the company's Huger mill. The plaintiffs — seven black former and current Nucor employees — also claim that racially charged e-mails depicting blacks with nooses around their necks were circulated, that some employees used racial slurs when referring to black workers and that the mill discriminated against blacks in making promotions.
Nucor executives on Tuesday called the claims "absolutely false" and unsupported. The company said it will file an appeal by the end of the week.
"Unfortunately, anybody can make any claim," said Giff Daughtridge, a Nucor Steel vice president and general manager. "These allegations are false. They're not supported by evidence. They are not supported by the record that is in the court. So, we are very confident about how the appeal is going to turn out."
There is no radio broadcasting system at the company and no evidence to support claims that there was an environment of racial hostile or that blacks weren't promoted because of discrimination, Daughtridge said.
The suit was originally filed in December 2003 in Arkansas, connected with claims of discrimination against other Nucor facilities. But the South Carolina claims were separated and transferred in 2004, attorneys said.
In its order, the appeals court said the claims "speak for themselves."
"Once, an employee held up a noose and told a black co-worker that it was for him," the order reads.
The three-judge panel also noted that the plaintiffs presented compelling, direct evidence of discrimination in promotions "such as denials of promotions when more junior white employees were granted promotions, denial of the ability to cross-train during regular shifts like their white counterparts, and a statement by a white supervisor that he would never promote a black employee."
Blacks were promoted at a far lower rate than the percentage of qualified black applicants, the court noted.
Armand Derfner, a Charleston attorney also representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the decision by the appeals court sets a precedent.
"Nationally, it is a shot in the arm for all those who have feared that our courts will not protect civil rights and civil liberties," he said. "This case is important. People talk about 'we're in a post racial society.' Well, a lot of things have improved ... but we're not there yet."
The suit seeks an unspecified amount of punitive damages and back pay for workers denied promotions they were entitled to, Derfner said.
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