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Court Denies Summary Judgment on Racial Harassment Claims brought by Nichols Kaster Client

On August 24, 2021, Plaintiff Meapeh Kpou defeated a motion for summary judgment on his claims of racial discrimination, retaliatory harassment, and negligent supervision against his employer, Supervalu, Inc. The opinion, authored by Judge Joan Ericksen of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, denied in part Supervalu’s motion on three claims in Mr. Kpou’s Amended Complaint.

Mr. Kpou, a current employee at Supervalu’s Hopkins, Minnesota distribution center, has faced severe, pervasive harassment because of his race and national origin, including racial comments, death threats, threats with heavy machinery, an assault with heavy machinery, and a barrage of insults. Although Mr. Kpou reported many of the incidents, the harassment not only continued but intensified, with coworkers retaliating against Mr. Kpou for reporting the discrimination he faced.

In denying Supervalu’s motion for summary judgment on Mr. Kpou’s claims for race discrimination (hostile work environment), retaliatory harassment, and negligent supervision, the Court made clear that a jury could conclude that the discriminatory conduct–which spanned years–exceeded the legal standard for a hostile work environment.

Significantly, the Court focused on the sufficiency of Supervalu’s remediation efforts related to the racist comments and conduct, noting that “[a]n employer who realizes its initial response [to harassment] was ineffective and fails to take further action has not reasonably calculated a response to end the harassment. If an employer receives information that the remedial action it took was ineffective, the employer should recalculate its response.”

Relatedly, the Court noted the employer’s failure to openly condemn the racist conduct: “Also noteworthy is Supervalu’s failure to making any sort of statement condemning some of the more widely known incidents. A reasonable jury could find that Supervalu should have addressed the nooses found blowing in the fan, the racialized dispute in the breakroom, the Schmitz forklift incident, and the two racist death threats left in employees’ lockers. These incidents occurred within a two-month period. Some sort of company-wide statement may have been appropriate given how many employees became aware of these incidents.”

In so doing, the Court recognized a claim for retaliatory harassment or hostile work environment in the case of coworkers, clarifying that “the question is not whether the harasser was a coworker or supervisor,” but “whether the employer’s action or inaction would have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

Finally, the Court recognized a claim for negligent supervision in the case of a racially hostile work environment where the employer is aware of repeat harassment from certain employees.

This is a significant win for Mr. Kpou, and Nichols Kaster looks forward to trying this case in the coming months. Plaintiff is represented by David Schlesinger and Laura Farley of Nichols Kaster, PLLP. The case is titled Kpou, et al v. Supervalu, Inc., Case No. 0:19-CV-01032-JNE-HB (District of Minnesota).

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