JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A case before the state’s highest court Wednesday involved racial discrimination and a hostile work environment at a now-closed Harley-Davidson plant.
Just before the Harley-Davidson plant in Kansas City closed in 2019, court documents allege there were incidents of violence toward Black workers. The decision before the seven-judge panel is whether all the plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit were subject to a hostile work environment.
Nimrod Chapel, Jr., is the attorney representing the 18 former employees. Chapel told the Missouri Supreme Court Wednesday that starting in 2017, a noose was found in the women’s restroom, then a swastika and other racist graffiti appeared.
The lawsuit names both Harley-Davidson and Syncreon, a contractor brought in by the motorcycle manufacturer to help with production.
“Because the 11 appellants have failed to please anything they have personally experienced,” Timothy Ertz, lawyer for Syncreon told the court. “Their reference only indicates headers in the captions above the various counts, but nowhere did they say, ‘I witnessed this. I experienced this. I heard about this.’ There is none of that.”
Back in 2020, one year after the Kansas City Harley-Davidson plant closed, a group of Black workers claimed racial discrimination was happening in the workplace.
“With swastikas and the ‘N’ word, multiple nooses hung throughout the plant,” Chapel argued Wednesday. “Those might as well be billboards for the plant. Everyone in there was subjected to that.”
Of the 18 former workers who were involved in the lawsuit, a circuit court dismissed the claims for 11 employees, which sent the case to the state’s highest court.
“There was literally a line in the plant that was segregating where they could go and where they couldn’t go,” Chapel said. “They worked for one company that was mostly Black, they said employees of that company cannot cross that line.”
He told the court Wednesday that former employees requested the police be called in when the noose was found, but the two companies did not allow that to happen.
“If we can’t keep nooses out of the workplace, names from being called and scrawled on doors in the bathroom, and prevent assaults on the basis of color, I don’t know what type of society we’re going to be,” Chapel said.
Court documents say that in 2017, a noose was found in the women’s restroom. Then in 2018, a swastika was also on the women’s bathroom wall, with a black doll hanging by a noose.
Plaintiffs allege that Harley nor Syncreon conducted an investigation in the two incidents.
Chapel said these discriminatory acts affected all employees and under the constitution, every Missourian has a right to a trial.
“This is corporate America trying to take away our ability to bring cases in court,” Chapel said in an interview after the hearing. “We talk a lot about the problems in America, but I think that Missouri would take a step backwards to erase protections in Missouri in favor of procedural advantages to defendants and that’s all they want.”
Judge Brent Powell questioned the attorneys representing the two companies, asking why these allegations weren’t enough to keep the case moving forward.
“So, is it bad enough to say they subjectively perceived all of those incidents, and it may not work out that way at judgement, but isn’t it enough to get past a motion to dismissed stage?,” Judge Fischer asked.
“I think I would have a much harder case here today if they said any of the 11 appellants in this case said I perceived this to happen,” Ertz responded. “They didn’t even say, ‘I perceived this specific incident.’ It’s all lumped together in the claim. We believe that any individual that’s claiming a hostile work environment must say what conduct they personally experienced.”
Ertz and Robert Rojas, the attorney representing Harley-Davidson both said due to a lack of employees who said they actually saw and experienced the discrimination, the case does not have enough to move forward.
“The appellants cannot state those claims because they have not alleged that they were subjective to personal experience any unwelcome harassment,” Rojas said. “This case does involve 18 named plaintiffs, only 11 of whom are appellants here today. We have the hostile work environment claims of the seven remaining plaintiffs, but those aren’t before the court at all.”
The claims of those seven remaining employees who joined the lawsuit against the two companies are still pending before a circuit court.
The Missouri Supreme Court did not issue a ruling on the case Wednesday, and it could take months before a decision is reached.