The federal government filed an employment discrimination lawsuit in Louisiana on Friday against Exxon Mobil after investigating a Black employee’s complaint that nooses had been found at a Baton Rouge, La., refinery complex.
The lawsuit said that the company created a hostile work environment for the employee, Milferd McGhee, and other workers by failing to implement measures to remedy and prevent harassment after five nooses were found at the complex between April 2016 and December 2020.
Mr. McGhee filed a complaint against Exxon with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.
He reported the discovery of a noose to a supervisor in January 2020, and nearly a year later, another noose appeared, according to the lawsuit. The first case was in April 2016, when an employee at the Baton Rouge plant reported that a rope had been tied into a noose hanging from a scaffold.
The company investigated and banned two unidentified contractors but did not take remedial measures, “such as training, counseling or policy changes, to prevent further racial harassment,” the lawsuit said.
In subsequent incidents, including the noose that Mr. McGhee reported at his work site in January 2020, the company investigated but failed to identify a perpetrator or implement measures to remedy racial harassment at the workplace, the suit said.
The government is seeking damages for Mr. McGhee’s “emotional pain and suffering, inconvenience and humiliation,” the suit said.
“A noose is a longstanding symbol of violence associated with the lynching of African Americans,” Elizabeth Owen, an E.E.O.C. lawyer in New Orleans, said in a statement. “Such symbols are inherently threatening and significantly alter the workplace environment for Black Americans.”
In response to the suit, which was filed in United States District Court in Baton Rouge, Exxon said in a statement that it disagreed “with the E.E.O.C.’s findings and allegations,” NBC News reported.
“We encourage employees to report claims like this, and we thoroughly investigated,” the statement said. “The symbols of hate are unacceptable, offensive and in violation of our corporate policies. We have a zero-tolerance policy of any form of harassment or discrimination in the workplace by or toward employees, contractors, suppliers or customers.”
Exxon did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
The commission said that it had sought but failed to reach a conciliation agreement with Exxon in February before it filed the suit.
The noose, a potent expression of racial animus, has appeared at work sites, schools and other public settings in recent years.
Amazon paused construction of a fulfillment center in Windsor, Conn., in May 2021 after seven nooses appeared at the work site. The status of a police investigation that involved the F.B.I. was not clear on Sunday.
The F.B.I. also helped in an investigation in 2017 after bananas in nooses were found on the campus of American University in Washington on the first full day Taylor Dumpson, the first Black woman to be elected student body president, was in office.
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