An American Indian man has sued NBCUniversal for discrimination and other civil-rights violations two years after he claims fellow workers taunted him with racial remarks and hung a doll representing an Indian girl from a noose over his workspace.
Faruq Wells, who is also known as Peter Wells, names as defendants NBCUniversal, Bill Spaventa and Evelyn Cordero. Spaventa and Cordero held supervisory authority over him in his job as a studio technician at the television production and distribution company famously located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The lawsuit was filed August 5 in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan and alleges that Wells endured “unlawful employment discrimination and harassment based upon national origin and color, hostile work environment, retaliation and constructive discharge in violation” of the state’s Human Rights Law (Executive Law, Article 15), as well as New York City’s Human Rights Law (Administrative Code, Title 8).
NBC says it investigated Wells’s allegations and found them to be without merit.
The complaint describes Wells as “a married, darker-skinned heterosexual male of Native American descent” (Wells’s attorney says his client’s father is Creek/Cherokee from Oklahoma) who worked at NBC’s Implementation/Union Shop on the second floor of the 30 Rockefeller Plaza building. It says Spaventa was Wells’s supervisor and directed his daily work activities, and that Cordero was “in a position of authority over Wells and could undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions and/or control the terms and conditions of plaintiff’s employment at NBC.”
According to the lawsuit Wells returned to work from vacation on July 14, 2009, chatted with Spaventa briefly and then was told by Rich Citelli, a fellow employee, to “look up high” over Cordero’s desk, “where [Wells saw] a dark-skinned, female doll adorned in traditional Native American clothing.”
Citelli and another fellow employee, Walter Clemons, allegedly showed Wells pictures they had taken of the doll. One of the pictures showed the American Indian doll wrapped in Christmas tree lights and labeled baby wells in green paper-tape across its chest. Another photo showed the doll hanging by a string looped around her neck over Wells’s workspace. In his complaint, Wells says his colleagues told him the doll had been hanging over his desk for six days and was moved only the previous day because Spaventa and Cordero knew he was coming back to work. He was also allegedly told that Cordero was responsible “for executing the discriminatory and hateful act of hanging the dark-skinned female Native American doll over the plaintiff’s workplace,” the lawsuit says.
Cordero’s desk was in a high-traffic area, where the hanging doll would have been visible to all the union shop employees who had to pass through the area daily to sign in and out of work. “Wells was humiliated and threatened by the hanging doll which was clearly done to insult his Native American heritage and darker skin color,” the lawsuit says.
Later in the day, while Wells says he “was still shaken by what he had learned earlier in the morning,” Cordero began to taunt him, the lawsuit says, describing a bizarre scenario: “Hey, Pete, do you have any illegitimate children?” Cordero asked, according to the lawsuit. Spaventa, who heard Cordero’s comment, “[rolled] his eyes” and said, “Oh God, I know where she’s going with this.” Cordero then allegedly grabbed the doll and threw it at Wells, “and joked, ‘Oh, cause (sic) I found her, here’s your long lost daughter.’?” A while later Cordero allegedly placed the doll in Wells’s workspace and said, “Pete, take the doll, come on, take the doll. Look, it’s got your DNA, skin color and you both have the same hair, it’s braided just like yours.”
The next morning, Wells says that he complained to the union representative James Keyes about Cordero’s “discriminatory acts” and showed him the photos of the hanging doll. According to the complaint, Wells says Keyes told him of other incidents of discrimination at NBC’s headquarters, including racial slurs and drawings on the company’s white cafeteria trays and two prior incidents of nooses hanging above an employee’s desk and in the studio of then NBC late-night talk-show host Conan O’Brien.
In his complaint, Wells says that when he confronted Spaventa with the photos of the hanging doll and asked, “What the hell is this?” Spaventa said he had told Cordero not to hang up the doll. The lawsuit charges that Spaventa, in violation of the company’s zero-tolerance policy on discrimination did nothing to prevent or remedy the discrimination, including promptly removing the doll. Later in the day, Wells claims that another coworker overheard Spaventa say, “I should’ve gotten rid of those guys a long time ago, “referring to Wells and some of his coworkers, and that he “would use [another employee] who participated in hanging the doll with defendant Cordero as a mole and to spy on Wells” and his colleagues.
Wells took his discrimination complaint to the human resources (HR) department and was told that NBC would investigate it. But he says in the complaint that incidents continued to occur over the next several days. At one point Spaventa allegedly assigned Wells to another job in a different NBC building, but when Wells called about the job, as instructed, he was told it had been completed two days earlier. In another incident, a piece of yellow plastic cut in the shape of a cheese wedge was allegedly placed in the workspace of Wells and some of the coworkers who had provided statements supporting Wells during the investigation. The cheese was taken to signify that they had “ratted” on the defendants.
The lawsuit says Wells stayed away from work during the investigation, but it is not clear about the exact dates of the investigation or the length of his absence during that investigation. Around July 29, Wells claims he told an HR employee that he was scheduled to return to work on August 3, but he was worried about retaliation as a result of his complaints of discrimination and a hostile work environment. The HR person said the investigation would finish the following week. Around August 21, the HR person told Wells the investigation had been concluded and he was to return to work on August 31 and not talk about the doll incident ever again. In the complaint, Wells claims he was not told of any specific actions taken against Spaventa or Cordero.
But Wells never returned to his job. The court documents filed by Wells say that after hearing from coworkers about an “increasingly hostile work environment” in his
department and that “everyone who worked there was ‘hating’ on him,” Wells “could not return to work” and was “constructively discharged” around August 31, 2009. Constructive discharge, according to USLegal.com, “is generally when working conditions are so intolerable as to amount to a firing, despite a lack of a formal termination notice. Unemployment benefits are typically unavailable when an employee quits, but may still be available to a former employee when a constructive discharge can be proven.” Around seven weeks passed between the time of the hanging-doll incident and the time Wells was discharged.
The lawsuit says Frank Choy and Chris Letcher, two of Wells’s colleagues who provided witness statements for the investigation about the doll hung over Wells’s desk,
were terminated and that Letcher was told he was fired because of his association with Wells. The lawsuit does not say when the men were terminated or who told Letcher about the retaliatory firing, and it is unclear if either Choy or Letcher have sued NBC for retaliation. Neither man returned phone calls after messages were left via voice mail. Wells did not return several messages left on his voice mail requesting an interview, and his lawyer says Wells has instructed him not to give interviews.
NBC also declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a written statement denying Wells’s allegations of racially based discrimination. “We take all allegations of harassment and discrimination seriously. At the time of the 2009 incident, the company conducted a thorough and independent investigation and disciplined employees who had behaved inappropriately. The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] reviewed Wells’s complaint and NBCUniversal’s response and declined to take any further action. We believe that NBCUniversal took appropriate actions in 2009 and that the lawsuit is without merit.” Note that NBC’s claim that Wells’s lawsuit is without merit appears to be contradicted by the company’s statement that it “disciplined employees who had behaved inappropriately.” When asked for clarification, an NBC spokeswoman said she would not comment beyond the statement that was issued.
The lawsuit leaves a number of pertinent questions unanswered, including whether Wells is an enrolled member of a state- or federally acknowledged tribe or a non-recognized Indian community; why he waited two years to file the lawsuit; and why it was filed in a state court rather than a federal court, where a stronger discrimination and workplace violations case might be made under federal labor laws.
The complaint filed by Wells lists six causes of action of discrimination based on national origin, a hostile work environment and retaliation and unlawful termination under the state’s Executive Law and New York City’s Administrative Code. It says Wells was entitled to protection based on his “Native American descent and skin color” and alleges that Spaventa and Cordero used their supervisory position to create a hostile and discriminatory work environment and acted “recklessly and outrageously and with malice and reckless indifference” to Wells’s protected civil rights. Wells seeks reinstatement of his job, and punitive and compensatory damages to be determined at trial.
Wells’s attorney Matthew Blit of the firm Levine & Blit declined to be interviewed by ICTMN per the wishes of his client, and did not respond to a list of questions submitted by e-mail. Blit, however, told the New York Post on August 5, “They are very creative racists. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some horrific cases, and this is definitely one of them.”