ACA.supremecourt.070419

A former longtime heavy equipment operator for a Gonzales-based company claims a noose was placed around his neck in a mocking manner twice in 2015 and 2016 so his supervisor could take pictures and share them with co-workers.

In a new federal lawsuit, Horlis Clark Jr., who is black, says the noose incidents were meant to evoke a lynching and were part of what the suit described as continuing racial harassment and discriminatory behavior at Auger Services Inc.

The complaints by Clark, of Zachary, eventually led to a meeting with top company officials. At that meeting, the suit says, one of the individuals Clark complained about, Greg Menard, admitted to participating in the noose incidents, had his phone confiscated and was fired.

But Clark claims that he continued to suffer harassment from other employees and was subjected to harassment and discriminatory behavior. He said he was passed over for promotions, forced to wash his white supervisors' cars and routinely heard racial epithets coming from co-workers and superiors.

"Plaintiff was consistently called names including but not limited to the following: 'bluegums,' 'boy,' 't-nig,' 'n*****,' 'token black,'" and more, the lawsuit claims.

In the first noose incident during the summer of 2015,  Menard, then Clark's immediate supervisor, looped a noose around Clark's neck. At the time, Clark was bending down to pick up tools at Menard's direction, the suit says.

Menard tightened the noose and laughed. Menard, who routinely wore hats with Confederate flags and "Southern Pride" on them, then ordered Clark to stand with the noose around his neck.

"Greg Menard told Plaintiff not to worry, 'I want to take pictures and send (them) to my boys,'" the suit says.

Clark claims Menard used a company phone to take the picture, sent it to other employees and then instructed Clark to get back to work.

The suit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, claims the hostile environment at Auger Services traumatized Clark, yet left him afraid to report it for years because he feared job retaliation and physical harm from Menard or others. 

Clark, who started with Auger Services in October 1995, worked 12- to 14-hour days at job sites out of state for weeks at a time and lived with co-workers in apartments. The 2015 noose incident occurred on a job site in Demopolis, Ala., the suit says.  

The suit claims there was a pervasive "culture of racism and intolerance" at Auger Services, which specializes in drilled shaft foundations for industrial projects, including for power poles.

As an example of the culture of racism at the company, Clark recounted an incident in which he was riding to Lake Charles in a car with the company vice president, Bryan Beck, and another man when Beck's car was cut off by a black man.

"Bryan Beck stated that 'goddam n***** cut me off,'" Clark quotes Beck as saying in the suit.

The civil suit accuses Menard, Auger Services and others of human and civil rights violations, retaliation, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery.  

“These acts are deplorable. It is inconceivable that something like this could happen today," Clark's attorney, Lance Unglesby, said Wednesday. "We have a moral obligation as a community and society to stand up to this injustice.”

The lawsuit names as defendants Auger Services; its corporate parent, PLH Group; Menard; MasTec Services Co. Inc. and another MasTec corporate entity.

Clark previously filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and sought a settlement. His suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, back pay and benefits, and attorney's fees.

In a written statement, Auger Services said the company is an equal opportunity employer and is committed to ensuring a work environment in which "the intrinsic dignity of each person is respected at all times."

The company's statement did not address the specific allegations made in the civil suit, with officials saying Auger Services has not been formally served.

"Once we are able to read and assess the allegations, we will follow up as appropriate and in accord with the court’s defined process for ensuring justice and fairness," the statement says. 

Messages left Tuesday and Wednesday with PLH Group and MasTec were not returned by deadline. A woman who identified herself as Menard's wife was informed of the suit and was emailed a copy for comment Tuesday evening but Menard did not offer a response as of Wednesday afternoon.   

MasTec, an Auger Services subcontractor, was named as a defendant because two unidentified MasTec employees are accused of participating in the second noose incident, in October 2016.

In that incident, Clark was working on power lines in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cotton field. Menard had called Clark over and then told him to "stop right there."

Two unidentified MasTec employees were aloft in a bucket truck above Clark, secretly lowered a noose around his neck and then pulled up to tighten the noose.

"Greg Menard ran towards Plaintiff to straighten out the noose around Plaintiff’s neck," the suit says. "Greg Menard stepped back and took pictures using his phone and laughed, telling Plaintiff 'See. Ain’t me this time. It's them.'”

Menard took more pictures, laughed and then told Clark to go back to work, the suit says.

Clark reported the incidents of harassment in May 2017 about a month after Menard looked Clark in the eyes and told him he wished Clark had died following an emergency room visit for being overheated on the job, the suit says.

Clark's complaints, first to a project manager, then to President Michael Cutrone, resulted in a May 23, 2017, meeting with Cutrone, Beck, Menard and others.

At that meeting, the suit says, Menard admitted to participating in the noose incidents and was fired.

Clark went on medical leave May 26, 2017, for post-traumatic stress and resigned in October of 2017, a step that his attorneys contend amounted to a firing because of the hostile environment.

"The very harassment that Plaintiff endured at the hands of his supervisor and other employees ultimately culminated in his termination," the suit says.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.