North Carolina

Assisted living center gave black worker cake with noose, ‘slave number,’ NC suit says

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A black housekeeper is suing the assisted living facility in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, where she said she was reportedly given a birthday cake with “a noosed up black hangman” in 2014.

The facility argues it was just a stick figure. But a federal judge is letting the case move forward.

“While it is unknown whether (these) claims will survive testing at a later stage of this litigation, the allegations in her complaint, when viewed cumulatively and taken in the light most favorable to (her)... are sufficiently plausible,” a magistrate judge in the Western District of North Carolina said in July, recommending the suit continue.

A federal judge accepted his recommendations on Monday and formally rejected the senior care facility’s motion to dismiss.

Tonya R. Chapman penned her complaint late last year, saying she was a jack of all trades at Oakland Living Center where she worked as a housekeeper, personal care aid and cook for more than 10 years.

But as “the lone black employee,” she said Oakland and the family who runs it harassed her to the point of quitting.

“I deserve to be treated better,” Chapman wrote.

Oakland and the defendants did not respond Tuesday to McClatchy newsgroup’s request for comment.

Chapman, who is not represented by a lawyer, alleges in the complaint that she was subject to various instances of harassment during the course of her employment, including hearing one defendant reportedly say they needed a new beach house “because of all the blacks at Myrtle Beach.”

She said later in the suit that she was forced to turn sideways like a prisoner when taking her photo ID while another defendant joked she would be given a “slave number” on her badge.

The young son of one defendant also reportedly taunted Chapman with a chant — “N-word, N-word, get to work N-word” — and told her that his father had called her a “lazy black N-word” because she didn’t come to work, Chapman said.

“I asked him to please stop but he continued the ugly language,” she wrote in the complaint. “He then kicked me and hit me on the bottom. I just ignored him until he got bored and walked out of the kitchen for a minute.”

Chapman also said she was given a birthday cake in 2014 that depicted a black person in a noose.

Oakland and the family responded with a motion to dismiss earlier this year, saying the image on the homemade cake was actually three stick figures depicting Chapman and the twin children of a defendant.

They also said the child was reprimanded for using a racial slur against Chapman.

“After this incident was reported to (the defendant), (he) made his son apologize to (Chapman) and punished his son for making a rude comment,” the motion states. “The defendants deny the allegations as presented by (Chapman).”

The six-year-old who reportedly used the slur is also not Chapman’s employer nor an agent of Oakland, the family argued, saying in the motion that his words don’t constitute an actionable claim.

But according to the judge’s July memorandum, claims for discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 need only be shown as unwelcome, based upon race and “sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive work environment.”

Though he questioned the validity of Chapman’s characterization of the cake, he said her other allegations for racial discrimination were satisfactory.

He also said the question of whether her claims meet the “severe or pervasive element is a close one,” adding that the alleged racial slurs did not appear to be used pervasively.

“Nonetheless, Chapman does reference specific conduct that allegedly occurred during July and August 2018 in which a racial epithet was repeatedly directed at her, the lone black employee of the Living Center, with some instances occurring after she complained to her supervisor,” he said.

The defendants could even be held liable for the six-year-old’s reported racial slurs, the judge added, given Chapman’s allegations that the defendants were aware of the child’s conduct and continued to allow it.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.