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In a rare move, lawyers suing Whirlpool Corp. over allegations of race discrimination have amended the complaint to combine white and African-American defendants. Although whites are not the primary targets of the alleged racial abuse at the Whirlpool plant in LaVergne, Tenn., they allege that they have been subjected to a hostile work environment where supervisors allowed racial epithets and offensive graffiti to run rampant. Armstrong v. Whirlpool, No. 3-03-1250 (M.D. Tenn.). The plaintiffs’ lawyers at the Washington office of Sanford, Wittels & Heisler say that this is the first example they can find where whites and African-Americans have been joined in a lawsuit alleging racial bias. The white employees originally came forward to provide support for their African-American colleagues who first filed suit in federal court in Tennessee in December 2003, said lead lawyer David Sanford. But, as they reported their experiences to the lawyers, it became obvious that the white employees had their own claims, Sanford added. “A lot of whites may not realize that they have a right to work in an environment that is free of racial hostility,” he said. Whirlpool’s lead outside counsel, Keith Hult and Garrison Phillips of the Chicago office of San Francisco-based Littler Mendelson, did not return phone calls. Whirlpool’s media relations manager, Steve Duffy, sent a prepared company statement denying the allegations. “The claims made in this lawsuit have already been investigated thoroughly, found to be without merit, and dismissed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” the statement read. The company also said that it intends to defend itself, asserting that “we do not tolerate bias or discrimination of any kind.” Jeffrey O. Bramlett, a partner at Atlanta’s Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, one of the firms that brokered a $193 million racial discrimination settlement with Coca-Cola Co., said that while white employees are often important witnesses in a race case, adding them as plaintiffs is a novel approach. “The claim of a hostile work environment is certainly a creative, and as far as I’m concerned, a novel approach to a race case,” said Bramlett. The claim typically comes up in sexual discrimination cases, he noted, but could certainly be an element in a racial discrimination lawsuit. However, Bramlett pointed out potential stumbling blocks in adding white plaintiffs, like how to decide damages or a settlement amount that is a fair compromise for both sets of plaintiffs. “Whites would be harmed differently from the African-Americans,” he said. “The question is: ‘Can you do a good job for both?’ “ The current class covered in the lawsuit is limited to 1,000 employees at the LaVergne plant, but more could be added as discovery goes forward, Sanford said. Ten African-American and 10 whites are among the named plaintiffs.

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