Arbitrator Rules in Favor of Former Employee in Racial Harassment Case Against Tesla

An arbitrator has ruled in favor of a former Tesla employee who claimed that he had been repeatedly called a racial slur by fellow employees while working for the country. The arbitrator gave the plaintiff a $1 million award in this case.

Melvin Berry had worked for Tesla as a materials handler for 17 months starting in 2015 before quitting due to the harassment. He hired employment lawyer Jeannette Vaccaro to represent him in the private arbitration case. During arguments in the case, Vaccaro said that supervisors ignored harassment by co-workers that included frequent use of the “N-word” in Berry’s presence.

According to court documents, when Berry confronted supervisors about the use of racial slurs, he was made to work longer hours and take on a heavier workload. He also filed a complaint with California’s fair employment office in 2017.

While making the ruling, Arbitrator Elaine Rushing said that there was evidence that supervisors also participated in the harassment and use of racial slurs, which caused Berry emotional and psychological harm.

“No other word in the English language so powerfully or instantly calls to mind our country’s long and brutal struggle to overcome racism and discrimination against African Americans,” she said in her ruling.

$755,000 of the $1 million award will be used to cover Berry’s legal fees in this case. However, the arbitrator in this case says that the award is meant to make a point more than anything.

“We hope that this award of over $1 million will inspire change at Tesla and send a message to all employers that harassment and discrimination have no place at work,” Vaccaro told CBS MoneyWatch.

Tesla also faces a class-action lawsuit involving 100 former employees who used to work at its factory in Fremont, California. The plaintiffs allege similar racist behavior that included racial slurs directed at them by co-workers and supervisors, as well as racist graffiti spray-painted onto restroom stalls. A separate lawsuit brought by a father-and-son duo who worked for Tesla for a period from 2015 to 2016 alleges “severe and pervasive racial harassment” while they worked at the Fremont factory. Testimony in that case is expected to continue in September.

Tesla has not commented on the Melvin Berry case or issued any statement about the alleged racial harassment beyond a 2017 blog post saying that the allegations amount to “misinformation” and the company is “absolutely against any form of discrimination, harassment or unfair treatment of any kind.” It says that, while it may be impossible to get incidents of racial harassment down to zero considering the thousands of people that it employs at each of its factories, it makes efforts to get that number “as close to zero as possible.”

The blog post included the text of a May 2017 email that CEO Elon Musk sent out to employees in response to the allegations that was an echo of SpaceX’s “no assholes” policy. In the email, it said that, while the company does have high standards for all of its employees, that is not an excuse to be a jerk to any employees that are members of an “historically less represented” group – nor should members of that less represented group be jerks to people who offer a sincere apology for poor behavior or look to make a quick buck with bogus allegations in a lawsuit.

Musk does not seem to have changed his mind much about his companies’ policy toward lawsuits since then, more recently saying that he doesn’t mind making it right when he or one of his companies were obviously in the wrong, as Tesla recently did in settling a case involving a software update that effectively “throttled” its electric vehicle batteries. However, Musk says, he will fight the cases in which he believes that somebody is just out to make easy money through the court system.