Employee files racial harassment suit against Tesla in California court

The lawsuit contains many allegations of a racially charged atmosphere at work.

San Francisco, Oakland and the surrounding Bay Area are known for their vibrant workplaces that spur technological, manufacturing and research innovation. But no matter how successful and cutting edge a business is, it must comply with state and federal laws against unlawful harassment and discrimination based on a worker's protected characteristic, such as a worker's race.

Lambert v. Tesla, Inc.

A racial harassment lawsuit was filed in California state court in Alameda County in March 2017 that has been widely reported in the media. Electrician Dewitt Lambert of Oakland was an African-American employee of Tesla Motors, the well known electric-car company headquartered in Palo Alto.

According to the complaint, Lambert alleges that he was the ongoing target of racially charged language, racial slurs and other offensive behavior at the Fremont factory. He first filed a charge of harassment and discrimination, along with other claims, with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing or DFEH, which gave him a right-to-sue letter.

Lambert further alleges that some of his harassers were promoted instead of reprimanded and that Lambert himself was denied promotions. He made many other allegations, including failure to accommodate a disability and retaliation against him for "exercising his rights."

He states that because of Tesla's handling of the harassment, he now has "emotional distress and psychological damage" as well as economic losses. In addition to the state-law racial harassment claim, he also brings 10 others under state law, including race discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, violent threats, assault, battery and more

Tesla has publicly and strongly denied the allegations. This lawsuit will be closely watched by those who advocate for employees who experience illegal discrimination and harassment.

Racial harassment under California state law

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act, known as FEHA, is the main state law against illegal discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Racial harassment, sometimes referred to as the existence of a racially hostile work environment, as a form of employment discrimination under FEHA requires the following factors:

  • The employee was in a protected class, like the member of a specific race.
  • The worker was subject to racial harassment that was not welcome.
  • The harassment was based on the plaintiff's race or was because of his or her "association with or advocacy for" people of a particular race, according to the California Court of Appeal.
  • The harassing behavior created unreasonable interference with the employee's professional performance because it resulted in an "intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment."
  • The harassment creates liability in the employer.

The assessment of whether harassment creates an offensive work environment is based on how a reasonable worker's performance would have been impacted as well as how the harassment would impact a reasonable employee's "psychological well-being."

Harassment can be physical, visual or oral and must impart an offensive message. It cannot be an isolated incident or minor in impact. Instead, it must either repetitive or severe in nature. Racial harassment to be actionable may be aimed at a specific person or generalized and pervasive enough in the work environment so that the work performance of a reasonable person of the race in question (or someone associating with or advocating for people of that race) would be negatively impacted.

The attorneys at The Armstrong Law Firm with offices in San Francisco, Sausalito and Oakland, California, represent employees in the Bay Area who have been the victims of harassment or discrimination based on race at work.