Case Type: Racial Discrimination
Company: Superior Architecture and Construction
Washington, D.C., May 15, 2020– Attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP today filed a $5 million civil action in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia suit against Superior Architecture and Construction and its owner Daniel Steinkoler on behalf of the company’s former Vice President of Construction and Project Management Derrick Russell, 54.
The action alleges Russell was subjected to a racially hostile and discriminatory environment throughout his 13 months of employment at Superior, and that Steinkoler discriminated against Russell throughout his tenure, ultimately terminating Russell illegally. After Russell objected to the Company’s unfair treatment, the Company and Steinkoler unleashed a campaign of retaliatory conduct including filing a false police report against Russell, a decorated former MPD detective.
Russell is represented in the matter by Sanford Heisler Sharp partners Saba Bireda and Vincent McKnight in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office.
According to the complaint, Russell was subjected to severe racial animus the entire time he worked at Superior, despite his exemplary work performance at the company. He was retaliated against for exercising his protected employment rights and for taking medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Steinkoler intentionally inflicted emotional pain and distress on Russell, failed to fully pay him for his work, and humiliated him; the result was that his mental, emotional and physical condition worsened immeasurably.
“It is beyond belief that in this day and age, and despite being located in a racially-diverse city and region, Superior and Steinkoler operate a workplace where discrimination and harassment are so openly tolerated,” said Ms. Bireda.
A former Metropolitan Washington D.C. Police department detective and an experienced, accomplished construction project manager, Russell began working at Superior in September 2018. Almost immediately, Steinkoler began subjecting him to racially offensive insults. including calling him “Lil’ Penny ” – a demeaning reference to an African American puppet. Steinkoler also used this derogatory reference in speaking with Russell in front of other white employees of the company in what the lawsuit characterizes as “a clear attempt to ridicule him” and remind him “of his subordinance to Steinkoler.”
When a white employee at Superior refused to report to Russell because of Russell’s race, Steinkoler adjusted the reporting structure so that the employee reported directly to him.
Russell endured nearly a year of Superior’s racially hostile and discriminatory workplace harassment before applying for medical leave in September 2019, for surgery to remedy a pre-existing herniated disc injury that had worsened. When Russell made an effort to prepare Steinkoler for his absence, Steinkoler became enraged that a black man was telling him how to “run his company.” On Russell’s first day of medical leave, Steinkoler fired him.
In response to being terminated, Russell informed the company that he would pursue legal action against the Company and Steinkoler for the illegal firing. The following day, Steinkoler filed a police report against Russell, alleging falsely that Russell had threatened Steinkoler. After Russell retained counsel, Steinkoler filed a temporary restraining order against Russell under the same false pretense, although Steinkoler did not appear at the court hearing and the TRO was subsequently dismissed.
As a result of Steinkoler’s false police report, Russell was arrested by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and spent the night in a crowded, cold dirty jail cell in March 2020 – just as the District was coming to grips with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Superior and Steinkoler’s retaliatory conduct was beyond the pale,” said Mr. McKnight. “The defendants used, and in fact, abused the criminal justice and court system to exact revenge on Mr. Russell for exercising his legal rights.”
The action alleges Superior violated the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act related to hostile work environment, retaliation, and wrongful termination; the District of Columbia Family and Medical Leave Act for discrimination, interference and retaliation; and the D.C. Employment Code pertaining to payment of wages upon discharge or resignation of employment. It also alleges that Steinkoler aided, abetted, invited, compelled and/or coerced Superior to create and implement the company’s discriminatory decisions and practices; and that Steinkoler intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Russell, committed libel per se; and breached his duty by filing a false police report, TRO and other claims against Russell.
The lawsuit seeks damages and unpaid wages of at least $5 million, a declaratory judgment that Superior’s racially motivated employment practices are illegal and violated Russell’s rights under D.C. law; an order requiring Superior to implement systemic programs that remediate the hostile work environment at the company, and an award of litigation costs and expenses.