Hill v. Pompeo: An African-American DS Agent, Offensive Baboon Gear, and a Removal From Leadership Position

This is a Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 lawsuit involving an African-American Special Agent in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security who joined the State Department in 2002. In September 2013, he joined State’s Office of Mobile Security Deployments (MSD). Excerpt below from the May 31, 2020 Memorandum of Opinion by Judge Dabney L. Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:
Summary:
Viewing the complaint in the light most favorable to Hill, it alleges facts to support all three elements of this type of race discrimination claim. First, it alleges that “Hill and Whitaker were the only African American Team 2 members and that the Caucasian Team members had been complaining about them, admitting they did not respect them, and requesting transfers to get away from them since the month after Hill took over as Team Leader.” Compl. ¶ 118. The complaint enumerates multiple instances where the Caucasian team members complained about Hill, see, e.g., id. ¶¶ 23, 24, 31, 39, 42, and sought his removal from his leadership position, see, e.g., id. ¶¶ 45, 46, 49. And the ongoing dispute over the Caucasian team members’ use of the baboon logo and their joking references behind Hill’s back to the baboon logo as “racist,” id. ¶ 19, give rise to a reasonable inference that the Caucasian team members’ treatment of Hill was racially discriminatory. Second, “State admits it removed Hill based on the complaints from the Caucasian Team 2 members, making their complaints the proximate cause of the actions taken against Hill.” Id. ¶ 117. Third and finally, a fair inference can be drawn that Collura and Rowan, Hill’s supervisors, should have known that the Caucasian team members’ complaints were racially motivated. See id. ¶ 120. The complaint alleges: (1) a clear fissure between Hill and Whitaker and the Caucasian team members from the very start of Hill’s tenure, see id. ¶¶ 19–29; (2) that Hill complained to his supervisors about team members defying his order not to use the racially offensive baboon logo, see id. ¶ 47; and (3) that several of the Caucasian team members’ complaints about Hill had a questionable basis, see, e.g., id. ¶ 37, 43; yet, (4) “[m]anagement acted on the Team’s accusations against Hill without investigating the facts,” id. ¶ 120. Accepting all of these allegations as true, Collura and Rowan acted negligently by not investigating the Caucasian team members’ complaints before removing Hill from his leadership role.3 And because Collura and Rowan acted negligently with respect to the information the Caucasian team members provided, the racial bias of the team members is imputed to them. See Vasquez, Inc., 835 F.3d at 276. Accordingly, the Court will deny the Secretary’s motion to dismiss the race discrimination claim based on Hill’s removal from his leadership position. 4
4 In contesting this conclusion, the Secretary places heavy reliance on Tallbear v. Perry, 318 F. Supp. 3d 255 (D.D.C. 2018). In that case, the Court dismissed a Title VII race discrimination claim by a plaintiff who alleged that her co-workers had continued to use the word “Redskins” in spite of her objection to the term. Id. at 260–61. But Tallbear’s co-workers used the term in the context of discussing the Washington Redskins, a local professional football team, and there was no indication that they used the word as a racial slur or directed it at Tallbear herself. Id. at 261. Here, in stark contrast, Hill has alleged that his team members explicitly referred to the baboon logo as “racist” and ordered hundreds of dollars’ worth of baboon-branded gear behind his back after he, the team leader, explained why the logo was offensive and ordered the team to stop using it. Compl. ¶ 19. Moreover, and more importantly, Hill’s co-workers engaged in extensive and targeted efforts to remove him from his supervisory role, see id. ¶¶ 23, 24, 31, 39, 42, 45, 46, 49, and those efforts ultimately succeeded, id. ¶ 56.
Background excerpted from court record:

The Office consists of several teams of agents who deploy worldwide to provide specialized training to overseas personnel, as well as security support for potential and actual crises. Id. ¶ 10. At all times relevant to this case, Hill’s first-level supervisor was Justin Rowan, and his second-level supervisor was Nicholas Collura, Deputy Director of the Office. Id. ¶ 11. Both Rowan and Collura are Caucasian. Id.

In March 2014, Hill was assigned to Team 2 of the Office as its Team Leader. Id. ¶ 12. Another Special Agent, Steven Whitaker, was assigned to Team 2 at that same time. Id. ¶ 15. Both Hill and Whitaker are African American. Id. When Hill and Whitaker joined Team 2, the team consisted of four members, all of whom were Caucasian. Id. ¶ 14. The four Caucasian team members described themselves as close friends. Id.

When Hill and Whitaker joined Team 2, each of them found a printed image of a baboon—the team’s unofficial logo—at their new desks. Id. ¶ 16. Both Hill and Whitaker were offended by the logo. Id. When Hill officially took over as Team Leader in May 2014, Hill held a team meeting. Id. ¶ 18. At this meeting, Hill explained that he found the baboon logo offensive because of the history of racially derogatory references to apes. Id. Hill instructed the members of Team 2 to stop using the baboon as the team logo. Id.

The Caucasian members of Team 2 continued to use the baboon logo nevertheless. Id. ¶ 19. After Hill banned the logo, the Caucasian team members used their government email accounts to order hundreds of dollars’ worth of baboon coins, badges, stickers, and hats. Id. They jokingly referred to the baboon logo and the word baboon as “racist.” Id. They did not tell Hill or Whitaker that they were ordering the baboon gear. Id. Hill soon discovered that his team members were disregarding his order, though; one agent’s phone lock screen was the baboon image and another agent was handing out baboon coins to soldiers and local contacts. Id. ¶ 20

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