Lafayette luxury car dealer must face Black former employee’s race discrimination case, Southern District rules

The former sales manager of a Lafayette car dealership can proceed with a race discrimination case against the luxury car dealer after the Indiana Southern District Court denied a motion to dismiss.

Jeffrey Turner, a Black man, worked as a sales manager at Mercedes-Benz of Lafayette, which is owned Mike and Bret Raisor, from 2011 until his termination in 2017. During his employment, Turner received two “Best of the Best” awards for his job performance.

In September 2017, Mike stated that MBL was “n—– scalping” Turner’s African American customers, meaning MBL was “systematically overcharging African American customers based on race.” Mike and Bret repeated the racial epithet multiple times and referred to Turner as their “favorite (expletive),” according to court documents.

Additionally, the Raisors directed “angry and offensive remarks” about African American football players at Turner during a meeting in which Turner was the only person of color. In another incident, the Raisors told a large group that Turner would disappear if the lights went off, then directed Turner to smile.

Turner complained about Mike’s multiple uses of the racial slur to the broader Mercedes-Benz organization. The organization contacted MBL to investigate, and shortly thereafter, MBL lowered Turner’s commission.

In a meeting in October 2017, Bret accused Turner of “running his mouth,” which Turner understood as referencing his complaint. That same day, MBL terminated Turner and hired a white employee to fill his position.

Turner sued MBL under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Indiana state law, alleging MBL discriminated against him because of his race, retaliated against him for complaining of discrimination and breached his employment contract.

As an initial matter, the Indiana Southern District Court granted MBL’s motion to strike documents included from an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission but denied motions to dismiss and for attorney fees.

Turning to the hostile work environment complaint, the Indiana Southern District Court found Turner’s allegations adequate, citing Gates v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chi., 916 F.3d 631, 638–39 (7th Cir. 2019), which held that the use of an unambiguous racial epithet by a supervisor creates an abusive working environment.

The court also found Turner’s allegations that MBL discriminated against him when it reduced his compensation and terminated him were sufficient.

“… Turner alleges that he was performing satisfactorily, as evidenced by his receipt of two ‘Best of the Best’ performance awards, when he was suddenly terminated and replaced with a white employee,” Judge James R. Sweeney II wrote. “He also alleges that employees who were not African American were promoted and given higher commission rates. These allegations plausibly suggest that but for Turner’s race, he would not have been terminated or had his compensation reduced.”

Turner also alleged MBL retaliated against him because he complained about Mike Raisor’s multiple uses of the racial epithet. MBL responded by arguing that Turner’s retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 failed because the allegations were too conclusory, and that the Title VII claim failed because Turner failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. But the court found the defense incorrect on both counts.

On the breach of contract complaint, the court said Turner plausibly alleged that the contract was an offer to pay consideration for his services, which he accepted by working, and that MBL breached it by unilaterally reducing the 20% commission rate. Thus, he allegedly lost money due to the decreased rate. But, the court continued, it had not been presented with the document lowering Turner’s commission, so it couldn’t determine whether MBL made such a promise in exchange for Turner’s acceptance of the decreased commission rate.

“At this stage, then, Turner has plausibly alleged a breach of contract claim,” Sweeney wrote.

Finally, MBL claimed that attorney fees were warranted because Turner filed multiple complaints, filed a premature appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, failed to comply with the court’s order to show cause and continued to pursue a meritless Title VII retaliation claim that was never raised to the EEOC. MBL also noted that its argument for fees and costs was “nearly identical” to the argument that now-dismissed defendant MBUSA successfully advanced.

Again, the Southern District Court disagreed with MBL and declined the request.

“… (T)he Court granted MBUSA’s motion for attorneys’ fees because Turner realleged claims against MBUSA that the Court had previously dismissed, ‘unreasonably and vexatiously’ forcing MBUSA to incur additional fees and costs in defending against those claims,” Sweeney wrote. “Specifically, the Court found that Turner ‘showed indifference’ to the Court’s order dismissing his claims against MBUSA; accordingly, the Court determined MBUSA was entitled to excess costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees incurred in opposing Turner’s Third Amended Complaint.

“But when the Court dismissed all claims against MBUSA, it specifically gave Turner leave to amend his complaint to allege claims against MBL. Thus, the circumstances that warranted an award of fees to MBUSA are not present here,” the judge continued. “True, Turner’s appeal to the Seventh Circuit was premature — but MBL was not a party to that appeal. … Nor has Turner continued to pursue a ‘meritless’ Title VII retaliation claim; as previously discussed, that claim is viable at least at this stage.”

The case is Jeffrey Turner v. Mike Raisor Buick GMC Cadillac, Inc., 1:19-cv-04141.

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