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The Statement “Your People Eat Dogs” is Enough for Racial Bias Suit, says Washington District Court Judge

On April 16, a federal judge in Washington State rejected Royal Canin USA, LLC’s (“Royal Canin”) request for summary judgement in a suit filed by an ex Chinese-American employee claiming he was subjected to racial discrimination and harassment and fired for complaining about it.  As discussed below, the magnitude of these allegations do not have to be earth shattering to allow a case to proceed to trial. 

Alan Kwang, worked as a Regional Sales Manager for Royal Canin from May 2014, through January 2017.  Around January 2016, Victoria Burke, who is Caucasian, became Kwang’s direct supervisor. In his Complaint, Kwang alleges during Burke’s tenure as his supervisor, she repeatedly made discriminatory comments about his race. 

On one occasion, several Royal Canin employees were discussing where they should go to eat, when one employee made a comment that they should not go to one restaurant because “the food could be dog for all you know.” According to Kwang, Burke said Kwang would be okay with that “because his people eat that.” On another occasion, when attempting to work out a formula on an Excel spreadsheet, Burke allegedly said Kwang’s “people” are better at math. Kwang also alleges when faced with resolving technology issues at the office, Burke would make comments about being glad she had an Asian on her team. Kwang claims he mentioned the comments to two Area Managers who told him not to make a big deal about it.

In December 2016, Kwang received a below expectations performance review from Burke, despite his claims that he performed well for all of 2016 and never received any negative feedback on his work. Shortly after receiving his poor review, Kwang claims he made a formal complaint to Royal Canin’s human resources representative, and was told “it was all in [his] head and that [he was] being too sensitive….”  Kwang was terminated shortly thereafter.

Royal Canin alleges two incidents at the Company’s national sales meeting in the third week of January 2017 that led to his termination.  The first incident, Burke claimed, involved Kwang ignoring an argument between two of his subordinates who report directly to him.  Burke claims she walked in and saw Kwang sitting there with his head down turning off his computer while the argument escalated around him. During the second incident, Kwang allegedly stood up during an awards presentation when another regional manager received an award and said “that’s bulls**t” and walked out.  Kwang disputes both incidents and claims the Company terminated him based on his complaints about harassment.

In denying Royal Canin’s motion for summary judgement on Kwang’s harassment claim, the Court held a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that comments from Burke made frequently and throughout the period that she supervised Kwang, were sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the conditions of his work environment. Kwang’s discrimination and retaliation claims also survived summary judgment. Even though Royal Canin offered the incidents at the national sales meeting as legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for firing him, Kwang presented enough evidence to suggest the Company’s explanation was pretextual. The Court also noted a reasonable fact-finder could believe the proximity of Kwang’s complaint to management about Burke’s comments and his termination suggested a causal link between the two events.

While this case is still in its early stages, it should remind employers to act quickly to adequately address claims of harassment and discrimination.  It should also illustrate to employers the importance of properly documenting performance issues. As Royal Canin learned, a causal link may be made between complaints of harassment and termination, even when there may be a very real reason for terminating an employee.  That’s where documentary evidence of poor performance may save you.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203-454-0560.