A group of black Nucor Steel workers, alleging they worked in a racially hostile environment at the company's Berkeley County mill, can continue its 5-year-old discrimination lawsuit against the manufacturer as a class-action case, a federal appeals court has ruled.
In an order reviving the class-action status, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month ruled that the U.S. District Court in Charleston erred when it denied the seven named plaintiffs could proceed in a case that could affect as many as 100 black workers at the Huger steel-making plant.
The three-judge panel sent the case back to the federal court.
The plaintiffs allege they worked in a plant-wide atmosphere of racial hostility toward black employees and that the local mill discriminated against blacks in making promotions. They are suing to change the practices and for back pay based on the denial of promotions.
They allege that the radio system at Nucor Berkeley broadcast racial slurs and noises; that some employees used racial epithets when referring to black workers; and that e-mails circulated among some workers depicted blacks with nooses around their necks. They also claim one employee showed a noose to a black co-worker and told him it was for him.
In addition, they say the display of the Confederate flag was pervasive throughout the mill, and the plant's gift shop contained items with Nucor's logo alongside those with the Confederate flag.
"It has been one of the most blatant acts of discrimination I have ever seen," said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP.
Plaintiffs' attorney Armand Derfner said the ruling is significant.
"It means they will get to put up more evidence and a more fully rounded case," Derfner said Monday. "They can put up evidence collectively and not just one by one."
A successful outcome also could have more far-reaching effects, Derf- ner said.
"If they win, the results can benefit the class as a whole rather than the individuals alone," he said.
Three of the seven plaintiffs still work at Nucor, Derfner said. At least one of the four no longer with the company was terminated, he said.
Former Nucor worker Gerald White filed a separate federal suit against the company in July 2008 after U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck denied the class-action request last year.
White claimed he was denied a promotion because he was one of the plaintiffs in the original suit and was fired in October 2006 as a retaliatory act.
He also alleges Nucor told him he was being fired because he exceeded the number of allowed unexcused absences in one year. White disputes the policy and said white co-workers were not treated the same way.
He wants to be reinstated with back pay and unspecified damages.
Derfner said White's case might now be rolled into the larger class-action complaint.
The NAACP and attorneys for the plaintiffs said they will discuss the appeals court's decision at a news conference today.