The EEOC recently filed suit in California against Novellus Systems, Inc. (“Novellus”), claiming that Novellus violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by allowing an African-American employee to be subjected to racial harassment. EEOC v. Novellus Sys. Inc., Case no. 07-4787. According to the EEOC, Cooke had worked at Novellus for about ten years when a Vietnamese coworker began taunting Cooke by playing and singing along to rap lyrics that included the “N” word and by using racial epithets independently of the music. Cooke asked the co-worker to stop and complained to his immediate supervisor, but his supervisor allegedly took no steps to stop the racially offensive conduct. When Cooke took his complaint to higher management, the company issued a rule barring the playing of racially offensive lyrics in the workplace. However, the EEOC believes the company waited too long to act, since Cooke had allegedly endured five months of racial harassment before the company took action.

The EEOC also contends that Novellus retaliated against Cooke by changing his start time and by eventually terminating his employment. The change in start time interfered with Cooke’s ability to care for his ailing father. Also, Cooke was one of two employees, both of whom were Africa-American, laid off by Novellus. Although Novellus eventually recalled the other laid-off employee, it never rehired Cooke.

In its complaint, the EEOC requests injunctive relief, Cooke’s reinstatement and compensation for past and future pecuniary losses, as well as damages for nonpecunairy loss, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and humiliation. The EEOC also asks the court to award punitive damages against Novellus for malicious and reckless conduct.

The fact that the EEOC filed a Complaint on behalf of Cooke demonstrates the importance of every supervisor and manager knowing that he or she has a duty to properly investigate an employee’s claims of discrimination and harassment and, if necessary, taking action to put an end to such behavior. As an EEOC spokesperson has stated, “we are concerned when we find that an employer failed to respond promptly after being put on notice of racially offensive language or conduct in the workplace.”