Law Firms

Judge refuses to toss suit claiming lawyer, a Civil War buff, played 'Dixie' and watched disturbing racist videos at work

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A fired office manager for a New York City law firm can proceed with her claim that she was subjected to a hostile work environment because of the alleged actions of a Civil War buff who was formerly a name partner. (Image from Shutterstock)

A fired office manager for Brooklyn, New York City, law firm Wenig Saltiel can proceed with her claim that she was subjected to a hostile work environment because of the alleged actions of a Civil War buff who was formerly a name partner, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly of the Eastern District of New York ruled March 29 that the plaintiff, Shonda Fernandez, had “raised triable issues” of fact about her hostile environment claims under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act and the New York City Human Rights Law. Fernandez is a Black woman of Hispanic descent.

Donnelly tossed Fernandez’s claims, however, that the firm fired her because of her race and retaliated when she reported the Civil War buff, Ira Greene, who was a name partner at the firm until 2009.

Fernandez had claimed that Greene watched violent, racist videos on his computer and made racially derogatory remarks.

Greene, who is retired, told the ABA Journal that Fernandez’s lawsuit is “totally fictitious. The whole things is a lie from beginning to end.”

The allegations are “the only problem, the only accusation I ever had against me in my entire career, and it’s so painful,” says Greene, who was licensed to practice law in 1974.

Described as “a fixture” at the firm, Greene had an office and a computer with internet access; he, in turn, agreed to transfer some of his cases to Wenig Saltiel, assign the firm the legal fees that he received, and name the firm as attorney of record in his cases, Donnelly wrote.

Greene’s arrangement with Wenig Saltiel continued until February 2019 and included most of the time that Fernandez was at the firm.

Greene’s office was next to Fernandez’s. She alleged that Greene used his work computer to play a song called “Dixie,” the “unofficial Confederate anthem,” and other Confederate songs; played a Confederate soldier when he participated in Civil War reenactments; and watched disturbing violent videos in his office that could be seen from his door.

Fernandez alleged that she saw Greene watching the videos on more than five occasions. The first time, he allegedly called her over to see the video, which showed a man hanging by a noose from a tree with his testicles and his penis cut off and shoved in his mouth, Fernandez alleged.

Greene also allegedly told Fernandez that minorities are not as smart as white people, and that Black people, especially women, have to be sleeping with someone to get ahead. When Fernandez complained, name partner Jeffrey L. Saltiel allegedly replied, “Boy, the old-timer is really on a rampage this morning.”

Saltiel, name partner Meryl L. Wenig and a junior partner met with Greene about the alleged comments. Greene testified that Wenig told him that she knew that he “didn’t say anything awful,” and he’s “not a racist.” But he’s “got to get this thing smoothed over.”

Greene wrote a December 2018 apology letter to Fernandez that said he understood why she felt offended.

“Demeaning statement[s] about any group of professionals based on race or ethnic origin are always wrong and clearly inappropriate,” the letter said.

Fernandez said she had previously complained about Greene, but appropriate steps were not taken to address his actions.

Donnelly said the allegations are disputed, but “a jury could find that Greene’s conduct was sufficiently severe to alter the conditions of the plaintiff’s employment. The obscene, violent and racist videos are so plainly hostile and intolerable that the mere act of showing them to the plaintiff, without more, could alter the conditions of her employment. Courts have found that displaying a noose in the office constitutes ‘intimidating conduct’ sufficient to support a hostile work environment claim; subjecting the plaintiff to watching what appears to have been a graphic lynching is even more severe.”

The firm disputed that Greene watched the alleged videos, citing testimony by their computer expert who visited the websites that Greene visited and did not find racially discriminatory material there. In addition, the firm said its content filter would have prevented Greene from accessing the alleged videos, and office soundproofing would have made it impossible to hear music coming from Greene’s office.

Other employees also said they never heard Greene make racist remarks.

Fernandez was fired in March 2019 because employees who quit allegedly complained she was “rude and condescending” and because of alleged job performance issues. Fernandez, however, had claimed that the employees were insubordinate and disrespectful.

The defendants in the suit are the firm, Greene, Saltiel and Wenig. Greene did not join in the motion for summary judgment.

Saltiel gave this statement to the Journal: Wenig Saltiel “appreciates that the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s spurious state and federal claims for retaliation and discrimination. The court’s decision is a resounding vindication. In finding that we had valid grounds to terminate the plaintiff’s employment, the judge ruled that we did not retaliate nor discriminate against her.

“Because on a motion for summary judgment all factual disputes are resolved in favor of the plaintiff, the judge was not able to resolve the rest of the plaintiff’s claims. As we have said from the beginning, those claims are meritless, and we are confident a jury will agree.”

Greene says he is not represented by a lawyer and was not aware of Donnelly’s decision.

Greene told the Journal that he is 83 years old, and the allegations are so upsetting that they are dangerous to his health. The only person who created a hostile environment at the firm was Fernandez, he says.

“The minute I saw the way she mistreated the staff, I told my former partners: This woman is not good for the people; she’s not good for the office,” he says. “She made the office sour.”

Hat tip to Bloomberg Law, which had coverage of the decision.

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