Offshore tank barge fleet operator accused of racial discrimination

By Melissa Busch | Apr 14, 2017

BATON ROUGE — One current and two former employees are suing a Baton Rouge division of an offshore tank barge fleet operator, alleging they were denied chances for promotions and subjected to racially charged language and treatment by management.

Aaron Cooper, Willie Harvey and Orlando Hill filed a suit on March 17 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana against Kirby Inland Marine LP. The plaintiffs, who are African Americans, say they were subjected to a racially hostile work environment, which included Caucasian managers openly using the N-word, wearing Confederate flag T-shirts and engaging in racially harassing conduct, such as making a noose, according to court records. The suit also claims the plaintiffs' superiors talked about the inferiority of African Americans and stereotyped the group as freeloaders and crackheads.

Cooper and Harvey allegedly were not given opportunities to move into higher level positions. The suit claims that most higher positions were held by Caucasians.

In the summer of 2013, after witnessing Relief Captain David Meeks' purported ongoing biased treatment of African Americans, Harvey spoke to Kirby's dispatcher, Misty Thompson, and asked her whether it was normal for a captain to ask for the race of an employee hired onto a boat. 

Thompson allegedly indicated that she could not talk about the issue but would convey his concerns to the district manager. A month after his complaint, he was fired. He was told he was fired because he got into an argument with the pilot over reckless boat handling. The pilot’s recklessness could have caused an engine fire, but only Harvey was fired, according to the complaint. He had been working for the company since August 2007.

In addition to allegedly directing offensive racial comments at Hill, who started working at Kirby in 2005, Meeks sabotaged his position as a mate. According to the suit, Meeks gave Hill orders to communicate to the crew and then countermanded the orders. 

According to court documents, Meeks would ask Hill to have the crew clean the ceilings of the boat, and then while the crew was cleaning, Meeks would say he never gave those orders. These situations led the crew to question Hill’s leadership. He eventually stepped down as a mate but continues to work at the low-level position of deckineer, according to court records.

Unable to continue to work within Kirby's hostile work environment where human resources purportedly ignored race-based treatment and retaliated against complaints of race-based harassment, Cooper was constructively discharged on Aug. 24, 2016, according to court records.

All three filed claims of a racially hostile work environment and discrimination, Harvey and Hill filed claims of retaliation, Cooper filed a claim of constructive discharge and Hill filed a claim of discriminatory discharge.

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Kirby Inland Marine U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana

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