The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) has settled a retaliation lawsuit filed by a former employee, Kelly Simmons, who was fired after she objected to the use of racial slurs by a coworker. Her report of the use of racial slurs was confirmed by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General. Despite that (and despite Ms. Simmons’ firing), the accused coworker was merely reprimanded for the conduct, for “conduct unbecoming a public employee.”
Simmons, a 30-year old white female, began working for FDOH in January 2011 as an interviewing clerk in a temporary position. She moved into a full-time position not long afterwards. Her unit served low-income mothers by providing health and nutritional services and information for them and their children. The majority of the clientele are black or Hispanic.
During her employment, Simmons learned of a coworker using terrible racial slurs about the clients and their children. Some were also directed at Ms. Simmons, who has biracial children. She was determined to put a stop to it, and filed complaints using the agency’s written policies. Simmons also used the Florida Public Records Act to obtain emails and other documents to support her complaint. Simmons’ complaints triggered an internal investigation by FDOH’s Inspector General’s Office, which confirmed Ms. Simmons’ reports. Among the comments the investigators confirmed had been made by the coworker:
- References to black children in the clinic as some type of animals, and Hispanic babies as “monkey babies;”
- Comments about black girls having different baby daddies;
- Refererences to Ms. Simmons as a “n****r lover,” apparently referring to Ms. Simmons’ biracial children;
- A statement that “They (referring to black men who come into the WIC office with females) should be out working instead of in the WIC office and the girls wouldn’t need WIC”;
- A statement that “He [Florida Governor Rick Scott] is going to make all of them back there (referring to the low-income, mostly minority neighborhood) take drug tests so they won’t be getting s free check for long.”
There were allegations in the case that the coworker was close friends with the boss and, not long after Ms. Simmons complained, she was fired. No one admitted the firing was the boss’ retaliation for Simmon’s complaint about the coworker. Indeed, FDOH’s official position was that Simmons failed to “satisfactorily complete her probationary period.” But as other employees came forward to testify, it was obvious her firing was triggered by the opposition to racial slurs. I remember asking one witness, a very sweet, gentle older black female who still works for the Department, what she would tell a jury if asked to explain how in the world this kind of environment could still exist inside one of our state agencies:
“Q: MR. GARRITY: These days someone might wonder how someone in a workplace could feel comfortable enough to say things like that so openly. Do you have any explanation as to how [the coworker] could have possibly felt comfortable enough tht she could say things like that without being — without suffering consequences?”
A: THE WITNESS: Well, it was the environment. It was very stressful for me being an African American woman. It got to the point where I went to the director to complain about the environment. It was tolerated because [the person making the comments] was friends with the supervisor — our supervisor, and she would just allow things to happen. And, you know, if you make a fuss about it, or object to some of the things that were being said not only by [the coworker] but by other people who are employed there, you know, she would retaliate against you. I mean, she would make it really difficult for you.”
Her answer is one I’ve heard many times. Too often, a harasser has a friend/protector in management, or is a powerful figure themselves. Ms. Simmons needed her job, and she knew that speaking out would cost her dearly. But she was determined to end the racist hostility for the benefit of everyone in the office.
The lawsuit has just been settled, and Ms. Simmons is very pleased with the outcome. I was too, and thrilled to have the chance to represent her. She made a difference, for many people who are now reporting to work there free of those kinds of comments.
P.S.: As a final note, the coworker in question eventually resigned. Among the discoveries Ms. Simmons made when poring over the emails she got through the public-records act request was one in which the coworker was apparently trying to buy prescription pain medicine from from another employee. Simmons passed that email along, and FDOH investigated and substantiated this incident as well. The agency’s final report said the matter would be referred to law enforcement, but whether that was done is unknown.
The lawsuit is Simmons v. State of Florida, Department of Health, Case No. 4:13-CV-00513-MW-CS.