Stupid Party Tricks
Don't expect Walter Winfield to ever attend another office Christmas party.
In December 2000, Winfield was a top salesman at Auto Trade Center and the only African American at the car remarketing firm, then based in Scottsdale. His superiors celebrated his success by mocking him at the company Christmas party, pulling him onstage and having him repeat words in his heavy accent, then laughing.
Then they featured Winfield in a Power Point presentation as an Afro-wearing clown, riding circus animals, he says.
"Of course I laughed with everyone else, but I had a tear in my left eye that wanted to drop," Winfield recalls now. He was making $1,000 a month in bonuses alone; he couldn't afford to quit.
Two years later, he skipped the office holiday party, even though his co-workers assured Winfield they wouldn't make fun of him. He got a glimpse of the '02 Christmas party Power Point show during an encore presentation in the company break room. This time, Winfield was depicted in several shots as Arnold Drummond, Gary Coleman's character in the 1970s-era sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. The other African-American employee at the company (there were now two) was shown as Willis, Arnold's older brother. (The two pictures shown here, and others, are part of the court record. The other employee, Leon Brown, still works for Auto Trade Center and did not respond to a call for comment.)
That's not all. Winfield says he endured continual religious and racial discrimination at Auto Trade Center, that one of his superiors, Mark Jensen, a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the company's senior vice president, gave him a Book of Mormon, proselytized at work, sent missionaries to his home and asked Winfield why it was okay for black people to use the word "nigger" but not white people.
Winfield never complained.
But the Diff'rent Strokes presentation was his breaking point, he says. Early last year, he filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After his employer learned of the EEOC complaint, Winfield -- always considered a stellar employee during almost four years with the company -- was charged with sexually harassing two of his female co-workers, and fired.
So Winfield filed another EEOC complaint.
Last month, the EEOC found merit in both claims, bolstering Winfield's chances in a federal lawsuit, in which he charges that he was subject to a hostile work environment, racial and religious discrimination, and, ultimately, termination.
The findings in the first EEOC complaint read, in part:
"The record shows that the Charging Party was subjected to pervasive verbal and other harassment from managers and co-workers because of his race and religion due to their offensive comments and pictures. The record showed further that Respondent maintained a work environment that was religiously biased in favor of those of the LDS religion."
And the second:
"I find reasonable cause to believe that the Charging Party was retaliated against . . . disciplined and discharged because he filed an EEOC charge of discrimination."
Robert Royal, who represents Auto Trade Center, now based in Mesa with offices in northern California and Minnesota, responded on behalf of his client. Royal declined to comment on the case itself, referring New Times to the court record. As for the EEOC findings, Royal observes that the EEOC has not filed a separate lawsuit against Auto Trade Center. (Instead, according to EEOC documents, the agency is going to make "conciliation efforts to resolve all matters.")
In court documents, the company denies all charges.
"At no time did Plaintiff raise any concerns regarding any racial or religious discrimination to anyone in any management role, including . . . his immediate supervisor, as he should have," Royal writes.
Scott Zwillinger, Winfield's attorney, counters, "Was he going to go to his supervisor, who was calling him a trained monkey?"
Royal denies that charge, as well.
Auto Trade Center denies showing any pictures of Winfield at the '00 Christmas party, although the company officials do admit calling him onstage to make fun of what they refer to as his "New York accent."
But Laura Wells, a former project manager at Auto Trade Center, remembers the party, and recalls the photos of Winfield "with a big Afro in a circus acrobat outfit" riding an elephant.
She recalls the part where they mocked Winfield's speech, as well.
"They made him say words. They would put up a word and make him say it, because he would say it differently than other people. . . . It was just, I couldn't believe it. Could not believe it."
The company says it made fun of other employees, for being bald, and that in '02 party organizers depicted two bald men as Dr. Evil and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies.
As for any religious discrimination, Auto Trade Center's attorney writes in court records that Winfield approached Mark Jensen to ask about the Mormon religion and that when he lost interest, Jensen stopped talking about it. Winfield, who is Baptist, says that's not how it happened.
Wells says she was treated similarly to Winfield. "We were all under pressure to convert," she says. "I felt like I was forced to attend a church meeting, which I did."
But she didn't go back, and after that, she says, "I wasn't the favorite child anymore."
Wells left the company and became a polygraph examiner.
Winfield has had more trouble finding work. Prior to coming to Auto Trade Center, he sold magazines door to door and then worked in telemarketing. His manager at the telemarketing firm left for Auto Trade Center, and gave Winfield the chance to come with him. (Terry Mollica, Winfield's manager, did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
It was a great opportunity for a guy who, not so long ago, was totally down and out.
"This may sound sort of cheesy, but Walter is the American success story," says his attorney, Scott Zwillinger.
Winfield has a felony on his record, and a history of drug abuse. In the late '80s, he committed several crimes, he says, including stealing a cement truck. His last criminal charge was in 1996, for narcotics possession.
But Winfield says he's been sober for eight years, and now serves as a sponsor in Narcotics Anonymous. He was grateful to Mollica for giving him the opportunity at Auto Trade Center. It was a good chance for an uneducated felon. Winfield remembers his first few days of work -- he actually stood by the fax machine at one point, waiting for an e-mail.
Quickly, he says (and his former employer doesn't dispute this), Winfield was excelling in his new career, selling Hondas, Chryslers and Volvos online.
Shortly after he filed the EEOC complaint, Winfield says he came to work and Jensen glared at him, slammed a door. And then came the sexual harassment charges. Within weeks, he was looking for a job again.
Laura Wells recalls that once, during a potluck luncheon at work, the subject of dancing came up. Winfield happened to walk in the door. "My boss, Mark Jensen, said, 'Well, there's Walter, he should be able to tell us about dancing.'"
After that, Wells says, she stopped Winfield and said, "Walter, you cannot let these people talk to you like this. He said, 'I'm a black man and I need this job. What am I supposed to do?'
"It was heartbreaking."
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