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Conductor sues over racially hostile work environment

A former rail worker from northwest Indiana alleges in a federal lawsuit that he endured a racially hostile work environment at the railroad company where he worked, which culminated in an epithet-laced attack by a co-worker who cut off his dreadlocks with a knife.

Solomon Perry, who worked as a conductor for Illinois Central Railroad for four years, said in the lawsuit filed Tuesday that his former employer also failed to adequately investigate and address his complaints.

“It was the single most horrific event that I'd ever experienced in my life,” Perry said of the attack, speaking at a downtown law office a day before the suit was filed. “Yet the institutional response was worse than the actions of the individuals that victimized me.”

In the lawsuit against a former co-worker, two managers and the railroad company, Perry said his time with Illinois Central was marked by swastikas drawn on restroom walls, the frequent use of the N-word and a routine disregard of workplace complaints by fellow minorities.

But he said the Nov. 10, 2012, attack at Markham Yard in Harvey was the breaking point.

The lawsuit alleges that when Perry went to the crew room on that date to sign out for the workday, Louis Busch, one of the lawsuit's four defendants, grabbed his dreadlocks, pulled his head back and cut off locks of his hair with a knife.

A spokesman for the Canadian National Railway, which owns Illinois Central, acknowledges the attack but said that it did not tolerate it.

“Illinois Central responded immediately and appropriately that night,” Patrick Waldron wrote in an email. “The company then conducted a full investigation, after which, the company took appropriate disciplinary action against employees involved in the incident.”

Busch was placed on leave and ultimately forced to retire because of the incident. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in Cook County criminal court, according to a transcript from the March 5, 2013, court proceedings. In that proceeding, Judge Allen Murphy expressed dismay that the case was not sent to felony court as a hate crime.

“I really am very troubled as to why this case wasn't even ... investigated as a hate crime,” Murphy said in the court transcript before sentencing Busch to 18 months of court supervision, diversity sensitivity training and 10 days in a work-alternative program.

On the day of the assault, the lawsuit alleges, Canadian National's internal police insisted on limiting its report to the physical nature of the assault, directing Perry to contact the human resources department to report discrimination.

Perry made several unreturned calls to a harassment hotline and to a manager of internal audits for parent company, Canadian National, and later tried to submit a handwritten statement to three company officials, according to the suit. Each of them, including a defendant in the lawsuit, refused, the lawsuit said.

“The company appeared steadfast in its refusal to hear about, consider, or take any action with respect to the discriminatory motivations for the attack,” the lawsuit states.

Once Perry's letter was accepted, according to the lawsuit, the company placed three other employees cited in Perry's complaint on leave and scheduled a hearing.

A notice that went out to everyone involved, however, contained Perry's home address, according to the lawsuit.

Perry, who also went on leave at the end of November 2012, began to experience physical threats at his home, including a dead rat with its chest split open on his porch and a death threat in his mailbox, according to the lawsuit.

At the internal hearing, in December 2012, the incident was characterized as “horseplay” and the company took no further action, according to the lawsuit. While he was told to come back to work, Perry refused out of fear for his safety.

“No reasonable person is going to go back to a workplace where their life is at risk,” said one of his lawyers, Lisa Banks. “Particularly in an environment like a railroad where it’s a dangerous place to be anyway. When co-workers say they’re not going to watch your back, aren’t going to help in the yard, an accident could happen easily.”

The lawsuit claims the way co-workers and supervisors treated Perry before and after the attack is consistent with a racially hostile company culture in which racial slurs are commonly used.

Perry’s lawyers say that Perry was singled out for particularly hostile treatment due to his aspirations to move up at the railroad company. He interviewed for a vacant rail traffic controller position in August 2012, they said.

A class-action lawsuit was brought by African-American employees against Illinois Central Railroad and its parent company, Canadian National Railway, in 2007 involving allegations that minority employees were overlooked for management positions and other promotions.

“I think the railroad needs to be held accountable for their actions and inactions. This isn’t the first time they’ve had problems with racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace,” according to Perry’s lawyer, Stuart Chanen. “They don’t seem to get the message. Maybe they will this time.”

mmrodriguez@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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