Mock KKK hood, burning cross prompt federal racial discrimination lawsuit
Attorney says Gencor Industries ‘looks forward to its day in court'
A temporary employee who once worked at Gencor Industries as an industrial painter has filed a federal lawsuit against the publicly traded company, claiming he was fired after complaining about racial discrimination.
In April 2017, about a month after John Shipley began working at the company headquartered in Orlando that manufactures construction equipment, he claims his supervisor entered the paint booth holding a makeshift flaming cross while wearing a pointed white hood with writing on it that referenced the Ku Klux Klan.
"It's a hood that we wear when you're sandblasting, and it had 'KKK' written on top," said Shipley, who is black. "He actually put two paint sticks together, taped them up like a cross, took one of our rags that we use for cleaning up, and lit it on fire."
According to Shipley, the supervisor was partially dressed in a white “spray suit” worn by workers while painting.
"He said, 'Get your a** over here right now. I'm going to f*** you up," Shipley said his hooded supervisor told him.
Shipley took a photo of the supervisor, which he said he shared with the company’s human resources department.
Immediately, Shipley claims, he and four other minority temporary workers were transferred to the night shift.
Three months later, Shipley said the staffing agency that had arranged his job at Gencor Industries informed him that his services were no longer needed.
"The night shift has been terminated," Shipley said he was told.
In his lawsuit, Shipley accuses Gencor Industries of retaliation and race discrimination that caused a hostile work environment. He is seeking reinstatement with the company or unspecified lost pay, along with compensatory damages.
Last year, prior to filing his lawsuit, Shipley lodged a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that investigates workplace discrimination.
In April, the agency closed its investigation because it could not conclude that any workplace anti-discrimination laws were violated.
“This does not certify that the respondent is in compliance with the statutes,” EEOC records state.
“Gencor believes that EEOC dismissal of Mr. Shipley’s claims was appropriate and looks forward to its day in court,” said attorney Brian J. Moran, who represents the company.
Supervisor claims incident was 'meant for a laugh'
Jeff Crandall, the former Gencor Industries supervisor who previously admitted to News 6 he is the person wearing the mock ‘KKK’ hood in Shipley’s photograph, is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Crandall did not immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment on the litigation.
In January 2018, nearly five months after Shipley filed his complaint with the EEOC, Crandall left Gencor Industries, according to a post on his Facebook page.
Neither Crandall nor the company has indicated whether the supervisor resigned or was terminated.
"It was a mistake I made, but it was all in good fun," Crandall told News 6 late last year. "It was a joke. A big joke," Crandall said. "(Shipley) knows that."
In a nearly 40-minute telephone interview, Crandall denied that he targeted Shipley because of his race.
"I regret putting myself in any situation in which I'd be perceived as racist," Crandall said. "It was meant for a laugh."
Crandall, who has posted Facebook photographs of himself at Gencor Industries wearing a painting hood inscribed with the hand-written phrase "work sucks," claims he occasionally “goofs around” on the job.
"It's kind of like a Halloween thing," Crandall said of the 'KKK' hood incident, pointing out that the clothing was part of his protective work uniform. "Nothing was done out of any kind of ill intentions."
Crandall suggested that Shipley was not as offended by the incident as he now claims.
"He was part of it," Crandall said.
However, Crandall declined to say whether Shipley was present when the hood and makeshift cross was assembled.
"It was all innocent until somebody decided to take it too far," said Crandall, referring to Shipley's discrimination complaint.
Gencor Industries representatives have not responded to emails from News 6 inquiring about discipline Crandall faced after Shipley reported the incident.
Crandall told News 6 that the company suspended him for five days without pay.
However, Crandall denied Gencor Industries punished him for discrimination.
"I was suspended for 'horseplay,'" Crandall said.
Gencor Industries settles prior discrimination lawsuits
In 2013, Gencor Industries settled an age discrimination lawsuit filed by the company's former human resources manager, court records show.
Frank Bilotta alleged that the company forced him to resign when he was 65 years old.
Weeks before Bilotta claims Gencor officials demanded his resignation, the former HR manager sent a confidential memo to the company's founder and then-CEO, E.J. Elliott, warning of discriminatory hiring practices, court records show.
"I am writing to inform you of practices that I feel jeopardize the well-being of the company and should be immediately addressed in order to protect your organization's reputation and from legal action that may include (Equal Employment Opportunity) activity and lawsuits," Bilotta wrote in the May 2006 memo.
"In our recruiting efforts, I am being directed to find candidates for employment who fit a certain profile," Bilotta stated. "For clerical candidates that profile is white, attractive (both facially and physically, the more so the better), no child care issues, no accent, non-smokers, no domestic partners and willing to work for salaries out of line with prevailing market rates."
During exit interviews, the former human resources manager claimed that departing employees complained about the former CEO's son, John.
"On several occasions I have been asked as to whether (then-vice president) John Elliott's management style constitutes creating a 'hostile work environment' due to his lack of sensitivity to people and issues," Bilotta wrote.
John Elliott replaced his father as CEO last year.
According to court records, E.J. Elliott later returned the Bilotta's memo with a handwritten note on top that read, "Frank. You have wasted my time."
In a deposition that was conducted as part of Bilotta's lawsuit, E.J. Elliott denied allegations of discriminatory hiring practices at Gencor Industries.
"It's absolutely a lie," E.J. Elliott said when asked about Bilotta's claim that the company sought job candidates who fit a certain racial profile.
"These are fabrications after-the-fact of (Bilotta's) departure," the former CEO added.
Three weeks after a judge declined to dismiss Bilotta's age discrimination lawsuit, Gencor Industries informed the court it had reached a settlement with its former HR manager.
The terms of that settlement were not disclosed in court records.
In 2009, Gencor Industries reached another undisclosed settlement with Sergio Falcon, a temporary machine operator who claims he was denied a permanent due to his physical disabilities.
The EEOC determined that Gencor Industries violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring job applicants to submit their personal medical information and undergo a medical examination.
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