US Justice Department sues Lee County over discrimination accusations

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Lee County on Monday, saying it discriminated against three Hispanic maintenance employees for two years.

Their nine harassers were fired only after the county's independent investigator confirmed the harassment had worsened and there was a hostile workplace.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, alleges that Lee County subjected Marco Ferreira, Eduardo Rivera and Leonides Sepulveda — Facilities Management Division repair workers at the county jail — to racial and ethnic harassment from 2007 to 2009.

Attempts to reach the Lee County Attorney's office for comment were unsuccessful.

The seven-page federal complaint said maintenance and repair services co-workers assigned to the county jail regularly used racial and ethnic slurs, repeatedly mocked Ferreira's and Rivera's accents and refused to perform work assigned by Rivera. The lawsuit also says the harassers retaliated by making false accusations against Ferreira and Rivera to Lee County's Office of Equal Opportunity in an attempt to get them fired.

"No one should have to endure harassment because of his or her race or national origin in the workplace," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Civil Rights Division, said in a news release.

The workers repeatedly complained to their superiors and reported the harassment in a timely fashion, the complaint says, and some of their superiors confirmed they witnessed it.

"However, (their superiors) failed to take any meaningful steps to correct the harassing behavior or discipline the harassers," the lawsuit says.

In September 2008, the lawsuit says, the men met with the facilities manager and director and human resources director to report the harassment, but no action was taken. Instead, county officials held a meeting to remind employees about the county harassment policy.

But the harassment only increased, the lawsuit says.

After Sepulveda filed another complaint on Dec. 24, 2008, county officials hired an outside investigator the next month. In a past interview, Sepulveda had said he arrived for work early on Christmas Eve and heard employees outside speaking about him and using derogatory racial slurs.

The outside investigator confirmed the harassment, writing in a report "Hispanic American employees in the Facilities Management Division have been and continue to be subjected to conduct by their co-workers that constitutes racial harassment and would support a claim for 'hostile work environment' under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Lee county officials then fired the nine harassers. However, the lawsuit notes, all but one were reinstated.

The lawsuit demands that a judge prevent Lee County from further harassment, order county officials to take steps to ensure a nondiscriminatory workplace for all Facilities Management employees, including an "appropriate discrimination and harassment policy," and to provide adequate training on that policy.

The lawsuit also seeks compensation for the victims.

The lawsuit came after the men filed discrimination charges in 2009 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigated and found there was reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred. The EEOC referred the case to the justice department.

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