An Extraordinarily Bad Grocery Experience

Racial discrimination lawsuit against Nugget Market heading to trial

Supervisors allegedly taunted Latino employees with Trump comments

A federal judge ruled last week that a discrimination lawsuit filed by two Nugget Markets employees can proceed to trial. The workers allege that supervisors racially abused and harassed them with taunts about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s views on immigration. When the workers complained to Nugget management about the harassment, they say the company retaliated against them. 

The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) on behalf of Jimmy David Ramirez-Castellanos and Francisco Javier Gomez Espinoza, both of whom worked at the Nugget store on Mace Boulevard in Davis. They were allegedly subjected to a hostile work environment by two managers and a maintenance director. 

The defendants in the lawsuit are Nugget Markets Inc. and Issa Quarra, the owner of One Stop, a janitorial service company that contracted with Nugget. The defendants had sought a summary judgment on seven causes of action brought against them in the complaint. On May 28, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez denied summary judgment on four of the causes of action, allowing the case to go to trial.   

“We will vigorously fight this lawsuit because these allegations are false,” Nugget Markets chief impact officer Kate Stille said Thursday in a statement to The Enterprise. 

According to the lawsuit, the supervisors began mocking and discriminating against the two employees on the basis of their national origin in the spring of 2015. Ramirez-Castellanos is from El Salvador and was employed as a floor cleaner. Espinoza is from Mexico and worked as a stock clerk. Both men worked night shifts. 

Court documents describe the allegations as a “sustained campaign of taunts” directed at the employees on a nearly daily basis in a way that was meant to “humiliate and anger.” 

“Both men say that managers at the market made demeaning comments about the work habits of Latinos and, during the 2016 presidential race, referenced Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric to humiliate them,” MALDEF said in a statement released Wednesday. 

“A reasonable man in Plaintiffs’ circumstances would have found the hostile conduct sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of his employment,” Mendez stated in his ruling. 

While campaigning for the presidency, Trump vowed to restrict immigration, deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. In campaign speeches, he frequently associated Latino immigrants with drugs and violent crime, even though data shows that immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S.-born citizens. 

“Invoking Donald Trump to harass Latino and immigrant workers is unlawful workplace conduct,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.  

According to court documents, a Nugget manager allegedly “said Latinos are ‘garbage,’ do bad work and steal jobs from Americans.” Another manager allegedly asked Ramirez-Castellanos if he was “looking for food” when he was throwing away garbage in a trash bin because that is what “Salvadoran guys do.” Ramirez-Castellanos and Espinoza say the abuse reached a point where they feared for their physical safety. 

They complained to higher-ups at Nugget Market about being harassed, they say, but instead of confronting the supervisors, company management retaliated against the workers. 

According to the lawsuit, Ramirez-Castellanos was fired in December 2015 the day after he complained about harassment. MALDEF submitted as evidence a recording of a phone call in which Ramirez-Castellanos’ One Stop supervisor explained to him that Nugget wanted him fired because the manager “doesn’t want to hear any more complaints from you or anyone else,” court documents state. 

Espinoza says he complained to Nugget management and asked to be transferred to another store, but his complaints were dismissed and his transfer request was denied. An email submitted as evidence shows a Nugget manager asking a fellow employer to look for performance related conduct to terminate or discipline Espinoza. After he complained, Espinoza says he began to receive his first negative performance reviews. 

“The Court finds this evidence to be compelling,” Mendez stated in his ruling. 

Nugget Market denies dismissing discrimination and retaliating against Ramirez-Castellanos and Espinoza. “Nugget Market would never allow or condone any discriminatory behavior,” Stille stated. For the past 15 years, Nugget has been ranked in the top 100 companies in the U.S. to work for. 

“We have fought these charges for the past three years because these allegations are false and have no basis in fact,” Stille stated. 

According to the company, the workers never explicitly complained about racial or national origin discrimination. “Defendant argues that its management ‘was never aware of any complaints Ramirez-Castellanos (made) about race or national origin discrimination,’ and that Espinoza did not actually complain about discrimination because he qualified his statement by saying (the manager) made him ‘feel stupid’ instead,” court documents state.   

According to Nugget, Ramirez-Castellanos and Espinoza “were not discriminated against and instead were simply performing poorly at work.” Their poor performance was the reason why there was friction between the workers and their supervisors, why meetings were held with management, and why Espinoza received negative performance reviews, the company says. 

“Rather than acknowledge that their lawsuit is falling apart, MALDEF continues to politicize baseless charges against us in a weak attempt to win public opinion in this tumultuous time,” Stille stated. 

According to Mendez, the employees submitted “more than enough evidence” to warrant a trial. “Plaintiffs firmly maintain that they both made Defendant aware, through its managers, that they were victims of discrimination,” he stated in his ruling.   

“Anti-Latino comments, jokes, and racial slurs in the workplace are illegal and inexcusable,” said MALDEF staff attorney Tanya Pellegrini, “We look forward to taking this case to trial and hope that it will serve as a lesson to Nugget and other employers that discrimination in the workplace will not be tolerated.” 

By Belinda Martineau

One thing Enterprise columnist Tanya Perez (and other Davis residents) could do to help get over “paralysis by analysis” (or paralysis by anything else) regarding the current unacceptable state of racism in our country is to … boycott Nugget Markets.

After reading “Lawsuit against Nugget can go to trial” in The Enterprise several weeks ago—which described a racial/national origin discrimination case filed against Nugget Markets Inc. in 2017 on behalf of two men, one from El Salvador and one from Mexico, by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund — that’s one action against racism I’ve decided to take.

As described in Caleb Hampton’s article, a federal judge found that a “reasonable man in Plaintiffs’ circumstance would have found the hostile conduct sufficiently severe and pervasive,” and in response to complaints they made to company higher-ups about harassment by several supervisors one man was fired the very next day and the other started receiving his first negative performance reviews.

Although Nugget Markets’ chief impact officer claimed the “lawsuit is falling apart,” the court found the “evidence to be compelling” and ruled that the employees submitted “more than enough evidence” to warrant a trial.

Boycotting Nugget is not a decision I’ve come to lightly. I have enjoyed shopping at the store on Covell for years and find the quality of the merchandise and service high. It also particularly shocked me to learn of a discrimination case like this at Nugget since it’s been “ranked in the top 100 companies in the U.S. to work for” over the past 15 years.

And Nugget is, of course, innocent until proven guilty — in terms of our legal system anyway. But unless additional facts come to light that convince me otherwise, I will be using the power of my pocketbook in this capitalist society of ours to send the message to Nugget Markets Inc. that I will not support an establishment in which complaints about a “sustained campaign” of racially based abuse and harassment are allegedly dealt with through retaliation against the victims.

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