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Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Founders Brewery Can Move Forward, Judge Rules

The suit, filed by a former employee, alleges a "racist internal corporate culture" as well as structural discrimination.

by Tom Perkins
Apr 25 2019, 9:00pm

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A racial discrimination lawsuit filed against Founders Brewing Co. by a Black former employee is moving forward in federal court in Michigan, though a judge dismissed one of its claims because the statute of limitations had expired.

The suit—filed by Tracy Evans, who worked as a brewer and in marketing at Founders between 2014 and 2018—alleges that he was passed over for raises in favor of two less qualified white employees; was fired in retaliation for filing complaints with human resources; and endured a “racist internal corporate culture” in which coworkers used the N-word around him on multiple occasions, and management labeled printers the “white guy” and “black guy” printers (the former was for managers).

Evans told MUNCHIES that he decided to file a lawsuit after having been fired because he “didn’t see any change happening” at Founders and “realized it’s part of a larger conversation.”

“I realized I had to do something to make a difference and figure out, how can we effectively get Founders to realize that there’s an issue? It’s more about that than the financial aspect,” he said.

In April, a judge dismissed the claim that Evans had been passed over for a promotion because Evans signed a pre-employment agreement that shortens the statute of limitations for such lawsuits from three years (as allowed by federal law) to 180 days. While the statute of limitations has indeed passed, Evans’ attorney, Jack Schulz, stressed that Founders wasn't cleared of wrongdoing.

“It’s a lot different than saying that they weren’t discriminatory,” Schulz said. “All they did was make it so he can’t have his day in court [on that claim].”

Evans said he filed the promotion claim because two white employees he had trained were involved in what the suit called "terminable incidents" not long before their promotions. One employee got drunk at a company holiday party and crashed his car into a parked car, the suit states, while another got drunk and "exposed his genitalia to the partygoers.”

Though Evans started his employment at Founders’ Grand Rapids location, he left in October 2017 for "fresh beginnings" at the company’s then-soon-to-open Detroit taphouse. Founders, which has denied any wrongdoing, noted in its response to the lawsuit that Evans was selected out of a pool of over 200 people who applied for a position in its Detroit taphouse.

The lawsuit also detailed several instances in which employees used the N-word around Evans in both locations. Schulz wrote:

"In one incident, the employees were discussing [Black] ex-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Following [Evans] expressing his views, a Caucasian coworker looked at [Evans] and said he needed to explain to [Evans] what it meant to be the 'head [n-----] in charge.' [Evans] immediately expressed his displeasure with the comment, to which the Caucasian coworker reaffirmed his statement."

The lawsuit states that prior to moving to Detroit, Evans was approached by a white coworker who asked, “What’s up with Detroit my [n-----]?” Evans reported the incident to human resources, and the employee was written up but not fired.

"[Evans] expressed his frustration with the company taking a blind eye to blatant racism against him and allowing an overtly racist culture," the complaint states. "[Evans] also stated that Founders should not allow this to happen. However, nothing was done beyond the write-up."

In its response, Founders acknowledged that the employees made the comments to Evans, but claimed that Evans was OK with the employees not being fired.

Schulz said the burden lies with the company: “Why is Evans deciding and not human resources? Why are they asking the victim what to do?”

Evans encountered similar issues with some of his coworkers at the Detroit location, one of whom spoke derisively about its "dark" customer base. (Detroit’s population is around 80 percent Black.)

Evans claims he was fired because he planned to take a day off of work to drive to Grand Rapids and file a formal complaint about behavior at the Detroit location. Evans alleges that management urged him to delay the trip to Grand Rapids, and that he was called into a manager’s office on his next shift and fired for not completing a project.

“He was terminated because of racism,” Schulz said. “It happened for two reasons: one, in retaliation. They got rid of him as soon as he said he was going to human resources. Two, because he’s Black. Had he been a white guy, then he wouldn’t have been fired.”

In a statement to MUNCHIES, Founders co-founder and CEO Mike Stevens called the allegations “simply not true.”

“Our employees are everything to us. We wouldn’t have Founders without the hard work and dedication 600+ people bring to the brewery each and every day, and we take seriously our responsibility to ensure everyone is safe and supported at work,” he wrote, also noting that the company has publicly responded to the allegations.

Regardless of the suit’s outcome, the situation highlights some of the racial issues in the craft beer industry, which is largely made up of white people. Since the lawsuit was filed, there have been calls to boycott Founders, and some bar owners say that they will quit stocking the company’s beer.

Evans said he feels “sad that this is still even a thing, that we have to be asking these questions at the workplace.”